If anybody doubted that Michelle Obama is an asset to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, those doubts were laid to rest last night as she gave an amazing speech at the Democratic national convention. In fact, it got me wondering if we had the right Obama at the head of the ticket. The Obamas have a lot in common with the Clintons — Barack is the same age Bill was when he made his run in 1992, and each couple is made up of intellectual equals, complementing and supporting each other. I think the Obamas probably have a more functional family life and generally I trust them more, but as I heard Michelle give the speech of her life last night, I was reminded by how impressive Hillary was when she burst on the scene in 1992. Still, there are real differences.
In many ways, the Obama candidacy is reflective of numerous changes in our political culture in recent years, as well as areas where we still have a ways to go. It is a two career family, where the husband and wife are essentially equal; he met her when she was assigned to be a mentor to him. They are raising a family, and they made career choices based not on just ‘moving up the ladder,’ but also on supporting their family life and doing good in their community. At the same time, they’re obviously very political; there is no other way they could be where they are now if they were not.
By 2040 whites will be a minority in the country, women will be in as many powerful positions as men, and our entire culture would have undergone a major transformation during my lifetime. This is exciting to see (even as some bemoan it or try to fight the inevitable); after all Barack Obama could not have hoped to even have a chance as recently as twenty years ago. The world is different; our country is different.
While the smear dogs out there want to make hay of the fact the Obamas are black, have a “funny name,” or (whisper, whisper) don’t love America, sympathize with terrorists and radicals or are arrogant elitists, the reality of this convention is that people will realize that the core values of the country are not limited to white middle class America. Michelle Obama emphasized common values, and the concerns that drive them into politics. She also set the framework for moving beyond ideology; this is about values, not ideological battles. The generation born before 1960 tends to bracket things into political and ideological groups. They will look at people like Obama as would-be radicals, and play out the old sixties era politics in their minds, projecting that on to the campaign. And perhaps enough of that old guard are still around to win the election for McCain, especially since there are sixties era Democrats who don’t trust or understand this upstart who was only 12 years old during the Watergate era, hardly able to process what was going on in Vietnam.
The Obamas are a glimpse of the future of American politics. Win or lose in this election, they reflect a new way of reaching out to the public (new media), raising money (grassroots and web efforts), talking about politics (post-ideological) and breaking the obsolete family model of the woman as staying home without a career while the man is the breadwinner. They represent demographic trends that are putting the European-American population out of its majority role, and bringing in a more diverse demographic.
Such change is difficult. Within the Democratic party, the Clinton-Obama fight shows that the new direction of the party is fought by the old guard, caught off guard by the fundraising success and organizational prowess of new style Obama campaign. The old guard on the right sees within the post-ideological facade an ideological agenda for big government or socialism. Indeed, the old guard can’t comprehend politics outside of an ideological struggle, that’s what it was in the 20th century. If you’re not conservative you’re socialist. If you talk about the community or solving problems, you’re socialist.
I don’t buy it. We’re entering a new century, with a new approach to politics. While I do fear that Obama is far too accepting of big government, and Biden is far too tied to the American global role to undertake fundamental change, real change shouldn’t happen all at once. Reality is forcing change, as Americans have to cope with the need to be part of a global community rather than ‘leader of the West.’ The American public is forcing a change as well. We’re undergoing a cultural transformation, and the Obamas reflect that. Last night, as Michelle talked about family, her aspirations, and how she and Barack would talk about ‘how the world should be,’ she hit on the pragmatic vision that transcends ideological boundaries and reflects why the Obama campaign became so popular. This will be a very interesting election.