I promise I didn’t rig our informal poll, but I won’t pretend that I didn’t like the results. I would have guessed ahead of time that most of the votes would go to Democrats, and most of those would go to Barack Obama, but the margins in both cases were larger than I had anticipated.
The most amazing thing is that Obama actually has a chance of winning this thing. While Hillary Clinton still has a substantial lead in meaningless national polls, Obama is leading in Iowa among likely caucus-goers, 35% to 29%; he is surging ahead in New Hampshire; tied in South Carolina; and could sweep all four early early contests.
There’s still a lot of time (although Iowa is only three weeks away), many chickens remain unhatched, etc. — standard disclaimers apply. And there is that little thing called the general election (where Obama is handily ahead of the Republican field). Still: there is a realistic chance that Barack Obama could be our next President.
But I don’t think that possibility has quite sunk into the national consciousness just yet. In particular, I think there is a moment yet to come when America sits up and says: “Holy crap, we could have a black person as the President of the United States!” For better or for worse — some people will be exhilarated, some will be appalled, some will be scared, some will cry tears of joy. Many pundits will say stupid things, many nasty smears will characterize the campaign. But regardless, it’s hard to exaggerate how extraordinary such an event would be — twenty years ago, a small percentage of political observers would have suggested there was a realistic possibility for an African-American to be elected President by 2050, much less 2008. The history of blacks in the U.S., with the legacy of slavery and the ubiquity of racism and the persistence of poverty, is almost too sprawling and complicated and emotional for any person to really grasp. It would not be hyperbole to describe the election of an African-American President as one of the most significant events in the history of the country.
There are plenty of valid criticisms to make about Obama, he’s certainly not perfect. It would be nice to have a real mandate for universal health care, for example. And, as historic as it would be, the fact that he is black is by itself not a very good reason to support him — having the first black President be a disaster could set the cause of racial justice back many decades. But even if he were a more typical Democratic presidential nominee — you know, a bumbling white Northeastern male who doesn’t use contractions — he would still be a great choice for President. He combines unusual clarity of vision with impressive legislative chops. The major Democratic candidates are not really that different in terms of policy platforms, so the question rightly becomes one of attitude and judgment — who do you want in charge the next time some completely unanticipated event affects the country? I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to support a candidate.
Who knows? Obama’s campaign could suddenly go up in flames. Or he could get elected President and be terrible; these things are hard to predict. But if he does get elected, the magnitude of the event and what it means for America is difficult to overstate. We’ll have to see what happens.