The Two-Edged Sword

Mickey Kaus beat me to the punch.  For that matter, so did Richard.  One of the reasons that I have frequently noted the obsession Obama supporters have with his appearance, his heritage and the symbolism of his candidacy is that I was sure that this obsession would make it not only possible but entirely legitimate for Obama’s critics and political opponents to deploy the same kinds of arguments about the symbolism of Obama, which Obama and his supporters predictably decry as prejudiced when they are being used in a way that doesn’t build up Obama’s mystique or that highlights the ultimately superficial and/or p.c. reasons why many people are inclined to support him.  When Roger Cohen oohs about Obama’s diverse background and cites Michael Ignatieff’s claim that Obama would have internationalism “in his veins” as a “globalized” American, or Nick Kristof talks about the significance of Obama’s Luo grandmother in Kenya, they are describing Obama’s personal history and identity as assets.  Because his personal history and identity have captured the imagination of pundits and Democratic primary voters alike, they have catapulted him far higher and faster than any first-term Senator would normally expect to be in a presidential contest (and have put him in a position far better than the one John Edwards enjoyed four years ago after a comparably short time in the Senate).  If anyone else even mentions these things, no matter how much they emphasize a positive interpretation of them (and especially if they are in any way associated with the Clinton campaign—think Bob Kerrey), the assumption is that these others are “raising” such issues to “remind” voters of utterly obvious and well-known things that Obama makes a point of mentioning in his stump speeches all the time.  You can hardly get through an Obama speech without hearing about his Kenyan father, and no discussion of Obama’s foreign policy is ever really complete without some reference, whether direct or not, to his few years abroad in Indonesia, which he cites as part of his qualifications for the office he is seeking.  Having gone out of their way to emphasize how foreign and dissimilar Obama’s background is that of most Americans, the Obama campaign is now throwing fits that others have started talking about the things that are supposed to be such outstanding assets and reasons why Obama represents meaningful “change.” 

His admirers are even more blunt in their praise of his background as the source of his world-healing potential.  Here’s Cohen:

Renewal is about policy; it’s also about symbolism. Which brings us to Barack Hussein Obama, the Democratic candidate with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother, an Indonesian stepfather, a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and impressionable experience of the Muslim world.

Oh, no, he used Obama’s middle name!  Except, of course, it is fine to use his middle name if you want to trot out an overblown theory of Obama’s powers of international reconciliation derived from his biography.  Imagine if a Clinton surrogate used the phrase “impressionable experience of the Muslim world”—you’d never hear the end of how this was “code” for saying that Obama had been conditioned by Muslims as a child or some such nonsense.  You would hear Obama declare that these comments “have no place in our politics,” as he keeps doing each time one of his opponents makes any reference to his background or to his middle name.  The name itself has the curious property of being a wonderful symbol of his understanding of the rest of the world, except when it is supposed to be a hateful slur.  A campaign based heavily on symbolism is extremely vulnerable to the symbolism it is relying on cutting both ways.  The Obama campaign is understandably keen to keep any critical discussion of Obama’s symbolism under wraps and declare it out of bonds as much as possible, but it isn’t at all clear why the rest of us should have to oblige their strategy.



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