"Revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American, dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenge involved in communicating across our barriers of race and religion, class, color and region... My task was to transcend those restrictions..."
Ralph Ellison on his classic novel, Invisible Man
Yesterday Barack Obama gave himself and his career as a present to the American people, a gift that promised them future miracles of reconciliation. Winning the presidency, he opened a new era in American race relations. Long after the world forgets the moral and intellectual collapse of the banks, 2008 will be celebrated as the year when America took another major step toward healing the self-inflicted wound of racism that has burdened it for generations.
Racism will of course remain for a long time America's greatest internal problem. The condition of education in black districts ensures that. Unemployment, crime, early school leaving -- these symbolize a national pathology for which no easy cure exists. But wherever blacks have had a chance to flourish, in the worlds of music, entertainment and sports, they have produced much of what matters most to Americans. White Americans, sadly, have tended to consider African-Americans "a problem" --and discounted even their greatest accomplishments as the exception proving the rule. Blacks, for their part, have too often accepted failure as their natural fate.
Beyond question, yesterday's decision will affect those attitudes. No one should underestimate the symbolic meaning of the presidency. The politician holding that job stands far above Supreme Court judges and secretaries of state. He performs as both head of state and head of government. He's at once monarch and prime minister, both the symbol and the CEO of democracy. Providing the president knows how to use it, the White House can set the tone of American society and shape its goals. In the last century Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did just that. The skills Obama has already demonstrated as a writer and speaker suggest that he could eventually earn a place on that list.
The installing of a black man in the president's office was an accomplishment that few Americans could even dream about a decade ago. It has been theoretically possible since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but blacks running in the primaries have been rightly dismissed as cause-promoters rather than office-seekers. Who, among black Americans, could take the promise seriously and pursue it with success?
Originality is clearly among Obama's qualities. He had the prescience to see himself as a president and the shrewdness to transform that vision into reality. He demonstrated it was possible to push race into the background, not ignoring it but not accepting for a moment (as so many black and white Americans have in the past) that it trumps all other issues. He did it with intelligence, dignity, charm and an astonishing display of poise, a day-by-day assertion of the now obvious truth that, unlike most politicians, he's supremely comfortable in his own skin.
His government-expanding plans for the future fill conservatives with dread and liberals with hope. Naturally, everything he promised will be altered by circumstances, from the progress of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the condition of international capitalism. In the inevitable arguments around his program, he could be helped by the Republican lurch toward a version of socialism in the treatment of the banks. Ideology is changing under the pressure of events, a shift that Obama may turn to his advantage.
The way he came to power hints at the way he will use it. In February, 2007, he was almost apologetic about announcing his intention to run for president ("I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness --a certain audacity -- to this announcement"). But he realized, as E. J. Dionne recently pointed out, that "the very unlikeliness of his candidacy would enhance its attractiveness."
In the style of a great politician, Obama invented his own constituency. As a campaigner, he did not "play to the base." Instead, he insisted on expanding the base until it became his own creation, a superbly organized coalition of Americans who wanted to rise above both racism and the rancorous left-right divisiveness that has made it impossible to govern the United States without regular infusions of partisan hatred. Obama hopes to change that tone and he may very well do it. As of yesterday, America has crossed a wide, dangerous river. On the other side, life will not be the same.
Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel began with five indelible words: "I am an invisible man." The black narrator was invisible to all those Americans who refused to see him for what he was and chose (out of fear or contempt or both) to see only certain figments of their imagination -- "everything and anything except me."
Invisible Man, published nine years before Obama was born, is among the books he's read with care. He connects with Ellison in at least one crucial way: Like Ellison, he's a proud black American anxious to transcend all the tired rhetoric of racism and victimhood. Speaking to a nation poisoned by racial division, he simply and decisively changed the subject. He fashioned himself into an answer to the problem that Ellison's Invisible Man posed. A frame of mind that was possible only for a fiction writer during the 20th century became a professional politician's successful strategy in the 21st.
White Americans have traditionally treated blacks as the Other, outsiders and exotic. But by the end of Obama's primary and general-election campaigns, he was no longer among the Other. He disclosed, in every possible way, his essential Americanism -- and became, at least for this historic moment, an American hero and standard-bearer, the human embodiment of its ambitions and dreams.
By an astonishing act of will, and an equally astonishing genius for both administration and oratory, Obama now becomes the first black man to direct the government of a major nation in the West. He did it by exhibiting the individualism that his fellow citizens admire most. He demonstrated high ambition, discipline and intensely focused energy. Whatever difficult questions his platform has raised, conservatives, liberals and all in between should join in the cheers. This morning all Americans can look at Obama and see themselves.