Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Once You Go Black

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jim Cole; Senator Barack Obama and wife Michelle campaigning with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey in Manchester, NH, 12/9/07)

(Post Title Credit: Robert Reid-Pharr)

How did you survive Oprahpalooza? Moose got through the avalanche of pretty pictures and the orgy of second-coming press coverage by toying with a theory about how the Oprah card might play in election '08. Before I divulge the theory, though, I will remind you that Roxie's World has officially endorsed Hillary Clinton, but we bear no ill will toward the handsome junior senator from Illinois. We just think the next president of the United States ought to have a little more than a learner's permit before being handed the keys to the car of state. Oh, and we think Obama is far more centrist than his swooning progressive fans seem to think he is. Don't believe an old dog with a leaky heart and a Hillary widget on her blog? Check out Paul Krugman's recent critiques of Obama's health-care plan (here and here) and his naive position on Social Security (here). If your holiday shopping is finished and your grades have been posted, run on over to see Digby's thoughtful response to the Obama campaign's overheated response to Krugman's fairly mild criticisms. (That's here.) We heart Digby a little bit more every day, by the way. We think she's doing some incredibly thoughtful stuff on the presidential campaign.

Anyway: Moose's theory. Playing the Oprah card is a high-risk strategy for both Oprah and Obama. For her, it risks alienating broad swaths of fans who have accepted her enormous cultural authority and influence because they perceived it as largely nonpolitical. Oprah got them to read challenging books -- Toni Morrison's Paradise, for heaven's sake! -- but she has never challenged her viewers to do much more than feel good about themselves. By taking a partisan position and actively campaigning for a candidate, she makes herself vulnerable to discovering that influence is not the same as power and that her audiences care less about what she thinks than about how she makes them feel -- about themselves, not about the world. The truth is Roxie's World gives Oprah props for taking those risks, though we got over her billionaire-girlfriend-next-door shtick way in the last millennium.

The risks for Obama in playing the Oprah card are arguably even greater and harder to predict. He could win big if her influence actually affects voters' behavior, which celebrity influence usually does not. The strategy could backfire, though, if voters come to feel that the substance of Obama's campaign -- which is already on the thin side in this blog's opinion -- is being overwhelmed by Hollywood style and spectacle. Whites are comfortable with African Americans as entertainers and athletes, but it remains to be seen whether they would vote for an African-American candidate who is short on policy experience and long on showmanship.

Even harder to gauge is how voters will respond to what can only be described as Oprah's blackening effect on Obama, an effect that is partly visual and partly rhetorical. Obama has always presented himself not so much as a race man but as a multiracial man, as someone who, because of his mixed heritage, is uniquely qualified to close the nation's racial divide. He has faced skepticism in the African-American community for not looking or acting "black enough," while whites have seen him as black enough to make them feel good about their open-mindedness but not black enough to make them feel threatened. (I realize we are trafficking in crude generalizations here, but we are trying to make a point. Direct all complaints to Moose, though -- It's her theory.) Those gorgeous tableaux of the Obamas on stage with Oprah, though, are striking in part because they make the candidate seem "blacker" by placing him in a racial context that is, for viewers of the presidential campaign, unusual. We are accustomed to seeing Obama on stage with the other Democratic candidates, where he looks comfortable, handsome, and just about white. Standing next to Michelle and Oprah, he looks comfortable, handsome, and a whole lot blacker than you thought (or imagined) he was. At the same time, in her speeches at the rallies, Oprah further "blackened" Obama by promoting him as a civil-rights politician (which he has never been) by invoking Martin Luther King and speaking in a churchy cadence clearly aimed at black voters. Watch and listen (though you'll probably want to skip the weird message at the end from a group called Christ for Barack Obama. Or maybe not.):

The risks here are multiple. Some voters will see this positioning as disingenuous and at odds with the centrist, beyond-race politics they thought Obama represented. They'll see it as pandering to black voters and therefore the basest kind of "politics as usual." Others will be threatened by it, suddenly finding Obama's politics a little too black or radical for their comfort. Roxie's World doesn't endorse any of these readings (well, okay, maybe we'll stand by the disingenuous part). We're just saying that playing the Oprah card is as risky for Obama as playing the gender card or the Bill card is supposed to be for Hillary. We might want the campaign to be a vigorous debate of issues, policies, and positions, but we can't deny that subtle subjective perceptions are going to matter even more than usual in an election that offers voters the first credible non-white, non-male candidates battling for the highest office in the land. In politics as in poker, you play the cards you're dealt, but you gotta remember that once they're on the table you can't pick them back up.

For a no-holds-barred critique of the Oprah-Obama alliance from an African-American perspective, see this hard-hitting piece by Bruce Dixon in Black Agenda Report.

For a thoughtful discussion of idealism and pragmatism and how those terms apply to Clinton and Obama, see this piece by Sean Wilentz on Huff Po. It's nice to see that bastion of Hillary hatred putting up something positive about the poor girl. We're as idealistic as you can get here in Roxie's World, kids, but we have a healthy respect for pragmatism, too. When push comes to shove, we like actually getting things done.


  1. Anonymous10:00 AM EST

    "He stood with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq." You go, Oprah!

  2. Anonymous10:12 AM EST

    WAY Off-Topic, and I'm sorry to attach this particular comment to this post, but this is what I got, so I'm going with it.

    Apparently, Roxie, the silly rule about non-working dogs not being particularly welcome at all those fine events at the university where my human and your moms work has resulted in your missing something important. I don't know if you require your humans to give full reports on faculty meetings (I'm always interested in knowing whether the discussion even got to the virtues of hard treats versus meaty-style--it never seems to, for some reason); anyway, Moose, being the modest person she evidently is, may not have mentioned that she won a very prestigious service award for her work in building and directing the University of Maryland's LGBT Studies program (as well as for her own scholarship and teaching in queer studies). Apparently, there was some kind of faculty meeting or something, and the chair of the English department went on at some length about the importance of this award and how excellent Maryland's LGBT Studies program is, thanks to Moose. Whom, for reasons I haven't been able to figure out, he did not call "Moose." But my human knew who he was talking about anyway.

    So congratulations to your amanuensis, Roxie.

  3. Very clever of you, Dudley, to follow your outing of yourself as an Obama boy with kind words of congratulation to my self-effacing amanuensis, who never tells me anything about faculty meetings (tho I actually attended a couple in the dark days of our exile from our home -- you should talk to your human about that). Anyway, we are very proud of Moose, even if we haven't stopped laughing about the fact that she overslept yesterday and missed the chair's encomium to her accomplishment and the allegedly spontaneous round of applause that followed it. It's possible that if she typed less and slept more she would be able to get to morning meetings on time, but we won't let that happen. Thanks again for the congratulations.

    Oh, and as for Obama's "clarity and conviction" about the war? He called it a "dumb" war -- which I suppose makes him a worthy successor to the "plain-spoken" idiot who currently occupies the White House. We shall see.

  4. Anonymous11:21 AM EST

    Actually, for an outing, that hound won't hunt. All I said was I am glad Oprah brought out that Obama opposed the war (with clarity and conviction--and, though she didn't say it, courage; it took courage at the time, you'll recall). So I'm only as out as one of Lady Macbeth's damned spots, which, if memory serves, the problem with was that they WEREN'T out.

    So, to rectify (with clarity and conviction): although I like and respect Obama and would support him fully if he got the nomination, at this point, I'm at least as much a Dodd Dawg as an Obama Beagle. Dodd is focused on defending the Constitution, which has taken about as much ill-treatment as some of Michael Vicks' dogs over the course of the past seven years.

  5. What is Michelle Obama doing with her right hand? I can't help but think she REALLY likes Oprah.

  6. Anonymous9:53 PM EST

    And then there's Oprah's forceful grip on Michelle's left wrist, not to mention Michelle's provocative left index finger. . . .I think you're onto something here, sweetie boy, but I'm not sure it's suitable for a family blog. ;-)

  7. Anonymous9:05 AM EST

    Oooh! What's the candidate's spouse doing with his/her body parts? Um, Roxie, do you REALLY want to go there? Even in snark?

  8. I just have to bark in here - I watched Bill stumping for Hill in South Carolina, which piggy backed on the Oprabama shindig which I also watched. Pawsonally, I was MUCH more taken with Willy! Sigh, why can't we just have HIM?

    Bussie Kissies


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