The Significance of the Nation’s First Elected African American President
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, joined in our firehouse studio by Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science, history and African American studies at Columbia University in New York City, the author of many books, including Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
MANNING MARABLE: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, I wanted to offer condolences on the death of your dad, right about the same time as the death of Barack Obama’s grandmother.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. The greatest regret I have is that my father didn’t live to see Obama’s victory. But I think that my father would have been ecstatic at the event last night.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect to see what you have seen? Did you expect this to come to pass now?
MANNING MARABLE: Actually, yes, for two reasons. One, that we had demography on our side, that is, that the United States is rapidly being transformed ethnically, that by—within the next thirty years, the majority of the population of the United States is going to consist of people of color, of Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans, so someone like Obama was inevitable to emerge within the political system. I’m somewhat surprised it occurred so suddenly into the twenty-first century, but someone would have inevitably emerged.
The second thing that is striking to me is that Obama represents, I think, a group of kind of race-neutral African American leadership, that include the Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who are not race-based politicians, who appeal directly to whites, who try to sidestep issues of race, who are pragmatists, ideologically more centrist than the liberal politicians who emerged out of the civil rights and black freedom struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.
AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama will be the forty-fourth president of the
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. No Democrat has achieved the kind of—the margin that Barack had since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. You had the largest number of Americans vote in
AMY GOODMAN: People were very concerned during the primary that here you had Obama and Clinton going at it, ripping each other down, and there was John McCain just sailing along. But now many are saying that actually it kept them in the limelight, they were hashing out issues, they were always there, and that McCain was just coasting, not doing much of anything.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. I think that Obama owes
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, because it was precisely what the Republicans, really pushed by Governor Palin, but she was doing the job for John McCain, mocked at the Republican convention. They talked about this community organizer and asked what does that mean.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. But it was the lessons of being a community organizer that allowed Obama to understand how a Democrat was going to win nationwide, that it was imperative for him to develop networks where you reach out into communities. You literally develop an organizing strategy to mobilize several million people and to bring them to the polls. But it was more than simply an electoral strategy. It was a social movement strategy that allowed Obama to win.
AMY GOODMAN: But you also have, on the one hand, the grassroots community organizing, but something that perhaps works against it in the future and something that grassroots groups have to deal with: the massive amount of money that was poured into this campaign, unleashed by, well, not abiding by campaign finance rules, opting out of the public campaign finance system. And the question now is who Barack Obama will answer to.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. The way I think about Obama now is that he represents something of a reverse-Reagan, in the sense that what Reagan represented was a hard-line, right-wing public policy agenda that was framed around clear principles—anti-communism, smaller government, building up the military—but with appeals to the center; Obama is like the reverse of that. You’re going to get, instead of a right-center leadership, you’re going to get a center-left leadership. Obama is going to govern from the center, but he’s going to make strong appeals to the liberal left. And that’s what his government will look like, with core principles: energy independence, alternative energy, an end to the war in Iraq, the economic—addressing America’s economic problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the end of the war in Iraq. I mean, some could argue that really that is why President—why Barack Obama is president today, because he spoke out against the war, and Hillary Clinton did not—
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —before the invasion. Now, though, people will have to hold him to that.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: That might have been, although people in the polls coming out yesterday said it was the economy, what propelled him to this point, because he had to win the primary, was that issue.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. I think that the real challenge now is not so much what Obama does, but what do progressives do? Because we have—we’re now in an uncomfortable and unusual situation, where, for many people left of center, we actually have a friend in the White House. You know, I can’t remember, during my lifetime—and I’m fifty-eight years old—where I can actually say that, that someone who understands clearly the positions of the left. Now, we had a lot of silly talk about Obama being a socialist during the last two weeks of the campaign. He’s not. He’s a progressive liberal. But for those of us who are indeed democratic socialists, those of us who are on the left, how do we relate to the government, where someone who ideologically is not an enemy, someone who understands the agenda and the issues that are of concern of the truly disadvantaged? How do we relate to that government? How do we relate to the politics of that administration? This is a real challenge for progressives.
AMY GOODMAN: We heard earlier in the show a woman standing in that mass crowd in Grant Park—and Grant Park has a lot of resonance from forty years ago, from 1968—saying, “Now I feel like this is my America.” It actually reverberated with something Michelle Obama might have said a while ago and got really slammed on: “Now I feel proud to be an American.”
I wanted to go now to some other voices, young voices from Harlem. Yesterday during the day, Democracy Now! producer Nicole Salazar and I headed up to Harlem. We went along Martin Luther King and then over to Frederick Douglass Boulevard and then to Malcolm X Boulevard to a precinct, a voting precinct, right there.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you guys—did you guys vote?
DIAMOND: Yes, we did.
AMY GOODMAN: OK. What’s your name? How old are you?
DIAMOND: My name is Diamond. I’m eighteen years old.
AMY GOODMAN: Is this your first time voting?
DIAMOND: Yes, it is.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel?
DIAMOND: It felt great. I’m glad I voted. It’s a change.
DIAMOND: Yeah, Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you vote right here?
DIAMOND: Yes, I did.
AMY GOODMAN: Why Obama?
DIAMOND: Because he’s the best. He’s making a change. I’m not going vote for no McCain.
JAFAR: Did she mention Obama?
DIAMOND: Yes. I’d rather have a cure for AIDS than the new technology. There’s no need for that. You can make all the new phones and everything, but you can’t have a cure for AIDS? That’s a problem. So Obama’s going to make a change, going to cure everything, make everything perfect. I believe in him.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to do?
DIAMOND: Me? I’m going to get a job, make some money, get off the streets. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s your name?
AMY GOODMAN: Why Obama?
JAFAR: Obama, because he’s for the people right now, and right now he’s something—he’s someone that we need right now. We need change. We need growth and development right now. We need a lot of progress done for the people here in all states and all boroughs and everything. And just different way of life.
MALACHI DANIELS: Malachi Daniels.
AMY GOODMAN: And have you voted yet today?
MALACHI DANIELS: I have.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
MALACHI DANIELS: Right here at this precinct.
AMY GOODMAN: Malcolm X Boulevard?
MALACHI DANIELS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Who did you vote for?
MALACHI DANIELS: Cynthia McKinney, Green.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
MALACHI DANIELS: I think Obama hedges on issues around Iraq. I don’t think they do. I think there should be unequivocal pullout, and the funds for this war should be cut. And Cynthia McKinney feels that way, and so does Rosa Clemente, and so do I.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, I voted for Barack Obama. I voted for him. I was going to give my vote to somebody else, but since she didn’t win, I gave it to him. And I like what he had to say. And he changed me over the course of time. I have children, and I want my daughter to go to college. So I’m looking forward to see what he’s going to do. I just hope he do—I know he can’t do everything, but just do something better than what it is. That’s all.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: America, democracy is beautiful. They rich must share the worth. You don’t need three homes. You don’t need $3 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Barack Obama will work towards that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, he will. He had the idea but need the people to change their attitude about spending, about loving each other. He can’t do it alone.
FLOYD ADAMS: My name is Floyd Adams.
AMY GOODMAN: And who did you vote for?
FLOYD ADAMS: Obama, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
FLOYD ADAMS: Well, because he’s talking about lowering taxes for the poor people, and he’s going to build the infrastructure, which is going to create jobs throughout this country for people, so this way we won’t be a burden to our country and the government. We’ll be able to work and take care of our families.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think Obama could win?
FLOYD ADAMS: After he beat Hillary, I saw that the people really wanted a change. And he went up against McCain, and he won. He’s winning.
AMY GOODMAN: Voices of Harlem on Malcolm X Boulevard. Manning Marable, how will Barack Obama’s victory, how will Barack Obama being the forty-fourth president of the United States change race relations in America?
MANNING MARABLE: Well, some of us would say that we’ve been waiting for this victory since 1619. It’s been about 400 years for African Americans to really feel a part of American democracy. It’s been—forty years ago—I mean, I think about this—the majority of black people did not vote in a presidential election. The first time they did was in 1968. That black people, for 250 years, were defined as property in this country. For another hundred years, we were relegated to the margins of democracy because of Jim Crow segregation. Black people were denied access to the ballot across the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And for us to move in forty years’ time to the point of having a black chief executive is almost unbelievable for the vast majority of black people.
But now the great challenge occurs, and it occurs in two ways. There are expectations that African Americans have that I believe can’t be realized by one person, by this one man, entering a political structure and an apparatus that is not designed to liberate black people. We have to be soberly cautious about what Obama can achieve, can accomplish, even as the nation’s president. But a second problem that I want to reiterate is, what does the left do as we approach a liberal administration that has won an unprecedented victory in our own lifetimes? This is equivalent to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But what do we do? How do we put forward an agenda of—that raises issues of class inequality, of gender inequality in this society? The Democratic Party is not a vehicle that’s designed to advocate the issues of poor folk and working people.
AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s a very serious issue of what does it mean when you have almost these very big majorities in the House and the Senate, not clear it will be filibuster-proof, doesn’t look like it will be, but very, very close, when Democrats can no longer say, “Well, you know, we wish we could, but there are the Republicans.”
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. Well, now they have to assume responsibility for governing. And they are going to—you know, I think that we have to be frank. I mean, Obama is not a person of the left. He’s a pragmatic liberal. He’s going to govern largely from the center. I think that probably the big exception will be his Supreme Court choices, which will probably be—which will probably be very liberal, I hope. But the real question is, how do—what do progressive do now?
AMY GOODMAN: Malcolm X, you’re writing a book about him. We were on Malcolm X Boulevard yesterday.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Your book is coming. You’ve been working on it for about a decade. What would Malcolm X think?
MANNING MARABLE: The good news is it’s about two-thirds done, and it should be done—the book will be done in less than a year, and it will be out in 2010.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re living Malcolm X, I am sure, and just living and breathing.
MANNING MARABLE: My wife will be very happy when it’s all done.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is it like in that context to experience this? What would Malcolm X think?
MANNING MARABLE: I think Malcolm would be—I thought the other night about “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Malcolm, in 1964, in a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, said that America has a choice.
AMY GOODMAN: A battleground state.
MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. You either—the choice we have is either a racial confrontation—the bullet—or the ballot. America could be a country that has a bloodless revolution. It may be too much to claim that what Obama’s victory represents is a kind of bloodless revolution. But in terms of the context of race, given its centrality to the political culture of this country, Obama’s victory is parallel to that of Nelson Mandela in 1994, in that Obama represents a kind of bridge that, very much like Mandela does in South Africa, that Mandela represented a bridge that allowed South African whites to expiate their guilt and shame due to their complicity in apartheid. In the United States you’ve had structural racism for four centuries. And here, Obama, without recrimination, represents a kind of, quite literally, in his own person, the coming together of black and white, representing a kind of bridge over the racial chasm that has separated, that’s been at the heart of American democracy.
Now, this allows, I think, many Americans, many white Americans, to jump to a faulty conclusion that race no longer is significant in the country. That’s not true, as long as there are racial inequalities that can be measured in all kinds of ways, everything from unemployment statistics to inequality in healthcare. And I think—so that’s one of the tensions in having Obama’s victory occur. That is that, what does that mean for an analysis of American racism?
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have the police brutality scandal that’s exploding in Chicago with the police commissioner, Burge, now being arrested for other reasons, having tortured, it’s clear, with a unit, mainly African American men, forcing them to admit—to give false confessions, some exonerated from death row. You have his support of the death penalty. These are all issues that he did not stress during this campaign.
MANNING MARABLE: No, that’s right, and as well as others. I think that Obama, once again, represents the maturation of a kind of race-neutral black political leadership. Harold Ford of Tennessee, Deval Patrick and others. This is not to question their identity, their proud ethnic identity as African Americans. But it is to say that they fashioned a politics that is consciously—that consciously minimizes discussions—a discourse of race and racism.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, I want to ask you to stay with us, Manning Marable. Where the Republicans go from here? They are convening in Washington to figure out the future of the conservative Republican movement. Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science, history and African American studies at Columbia University. Among his books, Living Black History, writing a book now on Malcolm X. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Manning Marable, staying with us from Columbia University, and we’re going to look at now the future of the Republican Party. Many agree, throughout 2008, the fissures within the Republican Party grew. John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, given to right-wing evangelicals, initially opposed his nomination. Yesterday, Senator Obama won several states historically seen as Republican strongholds, including Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Last week, reports emerged that leading right-wingers were planning to meet in Virginia in the days after the election to discuss the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Our next guest has been closely following this movement. Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America, the Guardian’s American website. He also writes regularly on politics for the New York Review of Books.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael Tomasky. So what is happening within this movement, and your thoughts on this election?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, my first thought on the election is that obviously it was an amazing night and a really, really thrilling thing to see.
As for the Republicans, I’m really glad this isn’t my problem, because they’ve got a big one, and—excuse me. They’re going to have some very serious internal arguments about why everything went so wrong here. They first argument they’re going to have is, can we get away with just saying, well, this was a bad candidate and a badly run campaign, and if we’d had a better candidate who had run a better campaign, everything would have been fine; or do they have to look a little harder in the mirror and say there are more serious and deeper structural problems here with the way we’re presenting ourselves to the American people that we have to grapple with? And some people will try to say the former. I was a participant or a front-row seat audience member for some of these similar conversations in 2004, 2005, after John Kerry lost. So I have an idea of how they go. So some people will try to say it was just tactical errors that were made in the campaign.
But I think there is a pretty big consensus, something close to a consensus, among a lot of conservatives, that their movement is out of steam intellectually, a little bit out of touch, maybe a more than a little bit out of touch, and that they have some serious questions to ask themselves, particularly with regard to two very dominant and powerful constituencies inside that party: one, the neoconservatives, who control Republican foreign policy—and, you know, I think it’s pretty clear that this election was a rejection of George Bush’s foreign policy—and the second, the hard-right social conservatives, who are the shock troops of the party and have a whole lot of power and influence in that party and who obviously aren’t translating very well to voters in the middle. So they’ve got a lot of questions to deal with over there.
AMY GOODMAN: What is this meeting that will take place?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: To be honest with you, I don’t really know about that particular meeting. I mean, there are meetings starting today all over town. I mean, Grover Norquist, who is head of the group Americans for Tax Reform, has his traditional meeting, as it happens every Wednesday. I’m sure it’s happening today in a couple hours’ time. And, you know, it will be interesting maybe to try and get some reports from that. But, you know, this isn’t a question of one meeting. I mean, this is a question of two years of work.
AMY GOODMAN: And who do you think are the leaders that will be emerging right now and where Governor Sarah Palin stands in this? By the way, I said North Carolina won by the Democrats; it actually has not been called yet, although Kay Hagan, the state senator, did beat Elizabeth Dole, the sitting Republican senator.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah. There’s going to be a few different factions that are going to emerge from this and battle for the future of the party. There is going to be this hardcore, you know, religious conservative base that has warmed to Palin. And, you know, I think it’s kind of obvious that she’s going to try to have a national future in the party. Mike Huckabee also represents that wing, and it would seem to me that he’s going to try to lay the groundwork for another run in 2012.
A very strong faction also will be the fiscal conservatives, the people who believe that George Bush was a big spender—and in some ways he was—and who believe that the Republicans have to get back to this idea of fiscal discipline and probity, and so on and so forth, and cutting the budget and cutting taxes and all the standard Republican things. And those people tend to be in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives. And it will be interesting to watch if a person or a couple of people emerge from there, from the House of Representatives, from that, you know, fiscal-disciplined wing of the party, to take a more active leadership role in things.
AMY GOODMAN: And Barack Obama’s relationship to this movement, Michael Tomasky?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: To the fiscal—
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, how he deals with the conservative Republicans that are now reforming and deciding which road to take.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Well, you know, he doesn’t really have to deal with them that much. I mean, that tendency is, as I say, clustered mostly in the House of Representatives. The Democrats are now going to have, what, about a sixteen-seat advantage in the House of Representatives? So—
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, not yet clear.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, but something along those lines. So, you know, the conservative House Republicans, I don’t think the Obama White House is going to have to really deal that much with directly.
Now, the Senate is another matter. As you said in the earlier segment, the Democrats won’t have sixty seats. There are four or five, you know, you can call comparatively moderate Republican senators who might be persuadable on certain matters to go along with the administration and the Democrats in the Senate, because that sixty-vote margin still is the important vote.
You know, I mean, I think—you know, Obama is—that stuff he said last night about trying to get past partisanship, he believes all that. So, you know, he will try to—I think he will genuinely try to bring some kind of a different tone to Washington. But then, you know, he also knows there are times when you can’t compromise, because there aren’t grounds on which to compromise, and you just have to win.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Tomasky, we will leave it there. Thank you for joining us from Guardian America, the Guardian’s website, speaking to us by video stream.
As we finally turn now, with Manning Marable, to Cynthia McKinney, Green Party presidential candidate, joining us from California. National results indicate McKinney placed sixth in overall voting, behind Barack Obama, John McCain, independent candidate Ralph Nader, Libertarian Bob Barr and Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party.
Last night, former Congress member McKinney held an election party along with antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who ran against the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CYNTHIA McKINNEY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your thoughts today?
CYNTHIA McKINNEY: Well, of course, I take the opportunity to congratulate Senator Obama, the people of this country and, honestly, the people all over the world who are waiting for a change, a significant change, and who are rejoicing in the fact that the wicked Bush administration will soon end.
But what will come in its place? What kind of change are we really going to have? I wish we could assume a break from the special-interest orthodoxy that seems to have a grip on Washington, D.C. It is this special-interest orthodoxy that has led to war and occupation, civil liberties attacks, social injustice, unemployment, poor yet very costly education and healthcare.
So, we have a lot of work to do. The people of this country have a lot of work to do. The incoming Obama administration is going to have a lot of work to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Where you differ with Barack Obama most, Cynthia McKinney? I mean, you, too, to say the least, broke barriers as the first African American woman to win a congressional seat in Georgia.
CYNTHIA McKINNEY: I reject the continuation of the occupation of Iraq and, of course, reject any surge into Afghanistan. There was silence over the most recent US raid over Syria, the incursions into Pakistan, the virtual blaming of Russia for a provocation that actually was initiated by Georgia, the push to include NATO membership for countries that are right up to the border of Russia and China. Then, of course, I would never have been for the bailout, put out my own fourteen points with respect to the bailout, would never have supported FISA, the illegal spying, the unwarranted spying on US citizens, and at the same time granting of immunity to telecoms that were complicit in that. There are many areas of disagreement with the Obama administration.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, but I wanted to—we only have a minute, but I wanted to ask Manning Marable, a big supporter of Barack Obama, how you feel about what Cynthia said and what she represents and Barack Obama did not.
MANNING MARABLE: I think Cynthia McKinney has shown throughout her entire career the kind of courageous leadership and progressive vision that we desperately need in America’s political system, that we shouldn’t be surprised that the left of the possible within the political system that we have in this country produces a progressive liberal like Barack Obama.
It is a breakthrough, in terms of Obama being the first African American, the first person of color, being the nation’s chief executive. But it still falls short of the kind of politics that Cynthia embodies, that I also share, that this is not—Obama’s victory is a victory over racism, but it is not a victory of the left. And progressives will be—have to challenge the Obama administration on all of these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: And we will have to leave it there. I thank you very much, both, for being with us, Manning Marable and Cynthia McKinney, on this historic “morning after.