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Keisha Brown, 21, of Chicago, exultant after Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination, told The Washington Post, “Everything will be different now.”
There will be five months of grueling campaigning before we vote. There might be a town hall meeting every week until the end of August, if Obama accepts McCain’s challenge. And there will much soul searching by Americans.
Yes, folks are tired of the war in Iraq.
Yes, oil prices are frightening. Yes, people are exhausted by the Bush administration’s astonishing incompetence and puzzled by McCain’s skin-tight identification (at least until now) with the president’s policies.
But it is far from a given that Obama will win. His inexperience in national security compared with McCain will hurt him. His long identification with the nutty-sounding Jeremiah Wright, now cast aside, will be revisited. Conservatives will brand him as another “knee-jerk liberal.” He’s a newcomer to the political requirement of wearing a flag pin. His middle name is Hussein.
And his skin is the color of chocolate.
Even though half of white America is at the beach trying to get a glossy brown skin tone and millions more buy fake tans, Obama’s skin is the great unknown in Decision 2008.
Only six percent of people tell pollsters they would not vote for a politician because of race. No pollster believes there is a good way to know how deeply racism hides in our psyche. We Americans, black and white, are uncomfortable talking about race.
After the national commotion over Wright, Obama’s pastor for two decades who said stupid things about race and 9/11, Obama gave a mesmerizing speech on race. When he got enough delegates to win the nomination, his victory speech included nothing about race.
It would be wonderful if he never had to address the issue again. It would be wonderful if, as Miss Brown hopes, everything will be different as far as dreary old racist attitudes go.
But after the closest primary in decades, it is astonishing that millions of Americans still do not know Obama’s story — reared by a single, white, financially-strapped mother from Kansas after his Kenyan father deserted them and by her parents, admitted to Harvard solely on his merits, a community organizer who turned down a prestigious law firm job. At 46, Obama is still in his first term in the U.S. Senate, father of two young girls, a relative newcomer to politics.
Yet, those political instincts are shrewd. He always opposed invading Iraq. He understands that Washington’s economic policies affect the lives of real people. He sees we’re at a crossroads and that the world thinks we have lost our moral compass.
He faces a fierce competitor in McCain, whose life is just as compelling. McCain spent five years as a Vietcong prisoner who became his party’s choice for president against huge odds, a maverick who appeals to Democrats and Independents, a man who had to face scurrilous, false rumors when he and his wife adopted a child from Bangladesh.
Obama has to let people know he is “a real American.” McCain has to convince people he is not a clone of a failed president.
Obama must reunite a fractious party. McCain has to convince a dispirited party, whose right-wing distrusts him, that he can lead them to victory.
Obama must spell out how he would solve our problems, not just insist on “change.” McCain has to explain how his plans make financial sense.
There are strong differences between the two nominees — on Iraq, on the economy, on social issues. It will be interesting to hear those differences fleshed out in a national debate. The next five months should be a vibrant, even exciting period of our history.
And it will be a time for confronting old demons. We must pray that if Obama does not prevail, it is not because of the color of his skin and that Keisha Brown’s hopes are not dashed.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)