"Mirage" is the best metaphor for Barack Obama. He shimmers on the horizon, a promise of something. But as one draws closer, Obama dissipates into nothingness - which is his purpose.
Like a mirage, Obama floats as an illusion in the political intersections between hot and cool air. It is the place he seeks: the deliberately chosen - yet ever-shifting - layer between other forces that are themselves constantly moving across the landscape. As the Illinois Senator announced his intention to create a presidential "exploratory committee," corporate pundits pegged him as nestled in the Democratic niche between Hillary Clinton, to his right - based her relatively "hot" air on Iraq - and the much cooler, if not frigid, temperatures at the base of the party. That's Obama's intermediary comfort zone - a place of ever-interpretable impressions.
"I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics," said Obama in a video posted on his website. "So I spent some time thinking about how I could best advance the cause of change and progress we so desperately need." Ahh, so that's what the period between now and February 10, when he will make his presidential intentions official, is all about: thinking time.
Obama is known for choosing his words very carefully. His admirers say that's a sign of his conscientious nature, that he doesn't want to inadvertently say the wrong thing, to speak irresponsibly. The truth is, Obama is determined to say next to nothing substantive at all, unless it is designed to position himself in some mellow region between opposing forces.
Obama claims, "I didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago." Amazing. I suppose that's why he has been so careful to navigate to the right of his fellow Democratic senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin; why he spent 2005 and 2006 mouthing "mush" on the Iraq war (1), and still continues to do so; why he told me point-blank, three weeks before being sworn in as U.S. senator, that he would not push for universal health care - the very issue that had made him a darling of progressives as a state senator, but which had burned Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady. Obama runs from even the flicker of a flame.
"The decisions that have been made in the past six years have put our country in a precarious place," he said. What the hell does that mean? Exactly what it is supposed to: next to nothing. By February 10, Obama will have crafted a catch-phrase that captures some vague mood of distress among the electorate. But he needs the time to measure the barometer, temperature and wind flow, and situate himself accordingly - the perfect mirage.
Barack Obama is a lawyer by training, but could easily have made a career on Madison Avenue, where "impressions" are the holy grail. The most effective commercials are those that provoke the consumer to provide her own impressions of the product, through word and image association. Obama's special genius is to elicit self-generated positive impressions from a wide range of consumers/observers - most dramatically, from consumers across the color line - while saying nothing of substance.
Corporate media, an extension of Madison Avenue, eats this crap up. Barack Obama has "wide appeal" and is, therefore, a "saleable" product. But what are they selling, and to whom? They (and Obama) are certainly not selling an end to U.S. wars of aggression, or universal health care, or the right to housing, education, and a minimal standard of income. Most insidiously, Obama-mania does not even market substantive measures toward racial justice. Quite the opposite: it presents an Obama presidential candidacy as a palliative - a soothing potion - that on its face serves as an historical benchmark showing how far "America" - meaning white America - has come.
Such is Obama's carefully orchestrated message: Vote for me, and I'll set you free - free like me! - from any obligation to reverse centuries of past wrongs or current crimes against African Americans; free to abandon universal health care as a national priority; free to warn Iraqis that there will be "no more coddling" (2) of them, as if 600,000 Iraqis have died from excess coddling; free to threaten "surgical missile strikes" against Iran in early 2006, and free to later back away from the warmongers' bully pulpit when the political winds changed. Free!
Commercialization is the great diversion in U.S. society: the creation of false realities that are "sold" far beyond conventional points-of-purchase. For decades corporations (and their two political parties) have been marketing an empty package labeled "new, improved America," a product that miraculously cures the nation's ills without the trauma of relinquishing white privilege and forging a real social compact among Americans, or of abandoning an imperial foreign policy. Barack Obama has cynically signed on as the beaming face on the package of that product.
In Obama's mind, the game is all about "impressions" - ephemeral things that are very much like mirages. Having no substance - poof! - in a minute, they are gone, leaving us to anxiously await the appearance of the next illusions of light and temperature, or messages that seem to solve ancient ills, but actually promise nothing.
Barack Obama has methodically created the impression that he feels no special obligation to African Americans ("There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.") (3) - the source of his meteoric rise. It matters not what he feels inside, or what he wrote in a decade-old biography. Obama has eagerly signed on as a candidate of the center-right of the Democratic Party - a hair's-breadth from Hillary Clinton, with whom I suspect he will eventually team-up.
And what do African Americans get out of the deal? Far less than nothing. By assisting white Americans to believe that painless absolution of collective responsibility for the past and current national sins can be achieved by looking kindly on an ingratiating Black man's presidential candidacy, Obama has become an active participant in the Great Diversion. He repeatedly reinforces the notion that noisy "partisan politics" is what's wrong with America, rather than rapacious corporations, structural and overt racism, and rampaging militarism.
As BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon has written, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), the announced presidential contender whose name is seldom uttered in the corporate media, is the "blackest candidate in the ring." (4) Kucinich's voting record "matches the best of the Congressional Black Caucus across the board" and is far more in tune with the historical Black Consensus on issues of peace and social justice than Sen. Obama's over the past two years.
However, African Americans will certainly flock to Obama's candidacy, both emotionally and - if he doesn't shift his weight to the Clintons before the primaries - with their votes. Despite the passage of four decades since the Black Freedom Movement defeated official apartheid, a Jim Crow mentality continues to haunt Black politics, one that celebrates every prospect of a Black face in a high place. The presidency is, of course, the ultimate brass ring. African Americans yearn to vicariously grasp it - even if the candidate has labored mightily to distance himself from them.
It is true, as Francis Kornegay wrote (5) in the January 10 issue of BAR, that Black (and white) progressives must come to grips with "the unfolding Obama-mania." In many ways, the Black aspect of Obama-mania is as caught up in historical contradictions as is the white side of the phenomenon. We will have to wrestle with both.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Glen Ford. All rights reserved.