What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it's central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West's advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.
Consider this hypothetical. It's November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America's soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama's face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
His face. Hello! Mrs. Ferraro? If one of the "formeost" things Obama offers voters is the "face of a brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia, etc." doesn't that mean "he would not be in this position if he were white"? If you like Obama because he might "rebrand" America to the world--well, he wouldn't accomplish that simply by having his election televised, as Sullivan suggests he would, if he were white, would he? Or think in purely domestic terms. If Obama were white, he wouldn't embody hopes of a post-racial future. Duh! That's part of his appeal. It seems obvious. Why does Obama dispute it? Why isn't Ferraro allowed to acknowledge it? Is it OK for Obama's "face" to appeal to egghead Atlantic subscribers but not ordinary Wyoming caucusers? Or was Sullivan being "offensive"" and "ridiculous" too?
I also think it's pretty clear that Sullivan-style logic is at the core what Ms. Ferraro meant when she said "[he] happens to be very lucky to be who he is" and that "the country is caught up in the concept" of his presidency. She's not arguing that he's where he is because black voters are caught up in identity politics--more the opposite, that white and black voters alike are caught up in the idea of ending identity politics. Nor does she does she seem to be arguing it's wrong to be at least temporarily "caught up" in this concept. But the concept wouldn't be there if Obama was white.
P.S.: Several normally canny commenters have taken issue with the idea that the Ferraro controversy hurts Obama. They suggest that, even if it loses him white male votes, what he needs now are superdelegates--and it will help turn disgusted superdelegates against Hillary. I don't know. Superdelegates are almost by definition political pros. Are they really going to turn against Hillary, and stay that way until August 25, just because they got ticked off by one of her surrogates yesterday? Skeptical conservative Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana might not forget so easily, though--especially if the Obama campaign can blunder its way to keeping this story alive for a week or two. What would really, permanently impress wavering superdelegates, after all, is if Obama can carry large chunks of the white male vote in those three big states.
Why doesn't Obama just say: "I think being black helps me in some ways, and hurts me in others. I'm running on my record, on the issues, on my ability to do the best job as President for all Americans, etc."--and tell his campaign aides to leave it at that?
P.P.S.: Would Obama be in this position if he weren'thalf-white--i.e. if he didn't have one white parent? That's a more difficult question. If embodying the post-racial future is an advantage, it would seem to help--but that's a bit ironic, isn't it (i.e., ironic if you can't lead America into the post-racial future unless you have the precisely correct mix of multiracial ancestry).
P.P.P.S.: If the Ferarro controversy does help Hillary, that would explain why Ferraro herself seemed to try to keep it alive yesterday with a silly, provocative comment: "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?" ... Second Reading: In context, Ferraro seems to be trying to parody what she claims is the Obama campaign's tendency to cry "racism" everytime someone criticizes Obama. The problem with this argument is that hasn't been the Obama camp's tendency--rather, they cry "racism" everytime someone brings up the question of race. But Ferraro may have been thinking of Orlando Patterson's less-wacky-than-you'd-expect op-ed, criticizing Clinton's seemingly non-racial "3 A.M." ad as racist--indeed, Ferarro mentioned the Patterson op-ed in an earlier TV appearance. Maybe she just got her back up and saw perversity all around. But she's clearly not trying to tamp down the controversy. ... 10:42 P.M. link
Tuesday, March 11, 2008