July 23, 2019 | 67° F

Obama overcomes obstacles to become first black president

To some, President-elect Barack Obama's electoral victory Tuesday night was an inevitable conclusion to a campaign that enjoyed unlimited campaign cash, an unpopular incumbent party, a crappy economy and an opposing ticket with weeks of problems in information control. Obama was a celebrity politician that was riding a wave of liberal white guilt, said some detractors. Make no mistake; they're wrong. Obama had to fight to get to where he is now and he rarely received a free pass. Hopefully, he will show the same patience, perseverance and good judgment as the president of the United States.

When Obama announced his campaign in February 2007, he certainly was not the favorite for the Democratic nomination. He had to run for the party's nomination against the most anticipated presidential candidate in a generation, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Before the prospect of "Obama for America" became real, the role of leading adversary was expected by both the pundits and the New York senator to be former Sen. John Edwards – whatever happened to him again?

Obama was not expected to do well with white voters, the most important demographic population-wise in the electorate. He was perceived by pundits to have problems with Hispanic American voters, the fastest growing electorate. But this now-known narrative hides the fact that Obama had trouble with his perceived strongest base, African Americans. No, it was not because of his alleged lack of a shared background with a minority population that saw centuries of institutionalized racism. His initial problem was with blacks who were skeptical of a candidate who at that point has captivated a handful of affluent liberals and some media pundits. Many of the same black voters viewed Bill Clinton's years in the White House fondly, and were expecting Hillary to carry on the torch. Ultimately, the same voters were suspicious of white racism, and it took an Obama victory in Iowa for Barack to prove everyone wrong.

Opposition researchers and internet trolls looked into the senator's background, searching for any detail that could hurt the Obama biography. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright news cycles were a crucial moment for testing how Obama would behave under a cloud of controversy. He decided to defy conventional methods of rapid response and instead gave "A More Perfect Union," a speech that addressed his complicated relationship with his pastor while putting it within the context of the problems with racial issues faced by all Americans. Ultimately, he described the racial tension as exaggeration by the media and a distraction to the problems that are hurting all Americans despite their ethnicity. Theoretically, it was a speech that pundits should have hated: it was a direct appeal to voters that did not have the obvious lines intended for sound bites, but going against conventional wisdom by asking the American people to listen before prejudging managed to quell the controversy.

Obama's campaign was not the "fairy tale" that Bill Clinton was criticized for labeling it as. The Illinois senator had to make compromises, like rejecting public financing and selectively going negative. He effectively turned "change," "hope," and his own initials into a brand marketed in a similar matter as McDonald's or Nike. Certainly, a good amount of his campaign cash came not from the small donors that he highlights. Perhaps a few newscasters on MSNBC liked the senator more than they should have, yet Obama's success in the presidential election rested largely on his good political judgment and lucky timing.

His two biggest self-produced assets in his campaign were his 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war and his alleged "gaffe" in which he said he would speak to top leaders of enemy nations without preconditions. In both cases, reality slowly bended in his favor, and his judgment appeared to be ahead of the curve. His vice presidential choice of Sen. Joe Biden seemed safe and inoffensive to a point that it may have mildly disappointed supporters who would have preferred a riskier choice. Yet a few weeks later, we got to see what a risky vice presidential candidacy looked like to the world.

Obama's presidential campaign on the internet broke ground in matters that made Howard Dean's 2004 campaign look like Ralph Nader's. He took a medium that was perceived to be over-hyped to his advantage, making aggressive use of social networking to fundraise and communicate messages. For the sake of his platform, I hope this new virtual campaign infrastructure remains in tact well past Election Day to lobby congress for the reforms and initiatives Obama has been talking about. Change that the president-elect spoke of did not happen by a mere election. It should happen in the first hundred days of office.

Colin Powell stated that while race must never be the reason for voting for or against a candidate, we should all be proud as Americans that we have finally reached a point where our nation can overcome enough of its own sins of racism to elect Obama. Yet this clearly important significance downplays the oratory skills of the president-elect and the small daily decisions made by him, which were wise. Without it, the world would not be waking up today with a renewed faith in the American way.

Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies.  His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays. 

Roger Sheng

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