The View from the Mountaintop

by Marion Maneker


We all make fun of the daily commentary that tries to assign a single motive to market moves but willingly accept the same sort of reductive analysis when it comes to real life events like elections. No doubt, Barack Obama’s skin color makes his electoral victory a historic event. But if we look at the trajectory of his victory, his background and the situation he inherits, is there anyone but Thomas Friedman who seriously thinks Obama’s win was about race?

Here’s how Friedman, a foreign policy columnist, opens his piece today:

“And so it came to pass that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States.”

Friedman goes on to try and weave Warren Buffett into his tableau:

“How did Obama pull it off? To be sure, it probably took a once-in-a-century economic crisis to get enough white people to vote for a black man. And to be sure, Obama’s better organization, calm manner, mellifluous speaking style and unthreatening message of “change” all served him well.

But there also may have been something of a “Buffett effect” that countered the supposed “Bradley effect” — white voters telling pollsters they’d vote for Obama but then voting for the white guy. The Buffett effect was just the opposite. It was white conservatives telling the guys in the men’s grill at the country club that they were voting for John McCain, but then quietly going into the booth and voting for Obama, even though they knew it would mean higher taxes.”

The assumption of a baseline racism to American politics seems terribly tone deaf to me. Last night Americans didn’t vote for Obama despite his race. They voted for him because they had no better alternative. Or, to put that in a positive light, they voted him because he presented the best leadership through the looming darkness.

Dan Gross captures this perfectly in Slate:

“McCain managed to give Obama a run for the money through mid-September. The polls began to turn (decisively, it turns out) against him when the global financial system suffered a run on the money.”

But at three crucial moments, McCain lost the public’s confidence. The first was his Hoover-esque, the-economy-is-sound comment as Lehman went down; the second was his ineffectual grandstanding around the bailout bill. It wasn’t Obama the black man who grabbed the center and showed how he would lead us through this crisis. Here’s Gross:

“While McCain seemed detached, Obama caucused with financial graybeards and kept his campaign plane on the tarmac to get updates from his new speed-dialing buddy, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Self-serving? You betcha. But doggone successful. And the passage of the bailout bill, which McCain grudgingly supported, neutered the increasingly ideological economic warfare McCain waged in the closing weeks.”

Finally, after the third debate, Obama had aligned himself with Buffett and Volcker–economic mensches–while McCain went off on another reckless gambit with Joe the plumber, the last act of a deaf man answering a question no one put to him. In that divergence, the election was won. And race played no part in it.

In conceding, McCain went straight to the race issue, pre-emptively cutting off attempts to rally the party around resentment. That speaks to McCain’s status as an American hero who has lived the ideals of his country in nearly every possible way. But race is a distraction that does nothing to help us understand what Obama’s strengths and weaknesses will be. The election night coverage of Obama’s speech struggled with making sense of Obama’s lack of a racial identity. There was Oprah crying in the crowd. She’s another figure who’s fame and success is almost wholly unconnected to her skin tone. Shots of Oprah were interspersed with glimpses of Jesse Jackson at times stoic and at times in tears.

Whatever you think of Jackson, there’s a poignancy to seeing the race man (“I am qualified”) witnessing a truly race-blind victory. And that points to something essential, almost biblical, in this story. Obama’s grandmother died days before his victory, poignantly reminding us of the story of Moses. The image of a leader on the moutaintop seeing but never entering the promised land is, of course, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s enduring rhetorical images.

Yet in Obama’s version we have Jesse Jackson standing in the crowd–symbolically remote from ever becoming an elected official–and his beloved grandmother expiring with the knowledge that she had raised a President.

But symbolism comes at the end, not the beginning. The twin images of sacrifice are what should remind us that race has been left behind–and the real work of measuring Obama and his ability to lead has begun.

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