From the beginning of his presidential campaign, which unofficially began with the release of his second book The Audacity of Hope, Senator Barack Obama has been positioned as an underdog against the Clinton machine. Now, with polls showing him in a virtual dead heat with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the media has constructed his early success as a David-over-Goliath narrative that proves that ordinary people have the power to slay the beast that is Washington through a radical politics of hope. Unfortunately, the Obama campaign has perverted the concept of hope by wedding it to a dangerous politics of compromise, concession and cunning.
Within the black faith tradition that Obama appeals to, hope is the belief that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, our circumstances can be transformed into something previously unimaginable. It is this notion of hope—coupled with organized resistance from the people catching the most hell—that led to the end of slavery, Jim Crow, and apartheid. In Obama's corporate-sponsored universe of meaning, however, hope is not the predicate for radical social change, but an empty slogan that allows for a slick repackaging of the status quo.
After Obama's recent success with white voters, particularly his win in Iowa, many have announced America's transition into a post-racial moment. Even Obama himself has claimed that race will no longer prevent the fair-minded citizenry from supporting his bid. In reality, however, an Obama presidency is already being treated as a racial talisman that would instantly heal the scars of a nation wounded by racism.
For whites, an Obama victory would serve as the final piece of evidence that America has reached full racial equality. Such a belief allows them to sidestep mounds of evidence that shows that, despite Obama's claims that "we are 90 percent of the way to equality," black people remain consistently assaulted by the forces by white supremacy. For many black people, Obama's success would provide symbolic value by showing that the black man (not woman!) can make it to the top. Although black faces in high places may provide psychological comfort, they are often incorporated into a Cosbyesque gospel of personal responsibility ("Obama did it, so can you!") that allows dangerous public policies to go unchallenged.
Despite its convoluted racial logic, the election of Obama would still be acceptable if his policies were properly aligned with a leftist agenda. Unfortunately, Obama has clung to a rigid centrism that is incompatible with full-scale social change. Despite his claims of being a peace candidate, Obama has repeatedly expressed a commitment to ramping up military and continuing the presidential legacy of using war as an instrument of foreign policy. Although he opposes the war in Iraq, Obama refuses to vote against its funding.
While Obama supports health care for all Americans, he does not embrace a universal single-payer system that would effectively undermine private corporate interests. At the same time that he bemoans the loss of jobs and expansion of global poverty, Obama fails to denounce free trade agreements and extols the virtues economic globalization. In addition, Obama has been conspicuously silent on topics such as the prison industrial complex, the Zionist occupation of Palestine, and the economic underdevelopment of Africa.
In the face of a black electorate that still craves messianic leadership, Obama has skillfully positioned himself as the Martin Luther King of his generation. Unlike King, however, Obama does not aim to disrupt the fundamental structure of society. Rather than dismantling the triple threat of global racism, poverty, and militarism that King warned against, Obama has promoted a doctrine of compromise that is self-serving rather than strategic, milquetoast rather than pragmatic. As opposed to Dr. King, whose legacy has been promiscuously appropriated by his ideological opponents after his death, Obama has freely offered himself up to the enemies of the Left by attaching few material stakes to his grandiose moral and political vision.
Many people, including some of his critics, have come to Obama's defense by claiming that his progressive half-stepping is an inevitable part of national politics. Others have argued that, despite his shortcomings, Obama is still the best choice among the remaining democratic field. While such claims may be true, they prove that Obama is merely the most attractive in a group of political siblings rather than the revolutionary outsider that he's portrayed to be. Unfortunately, Obama isn't selling himself as the best of the pack, but as an entirely new breed of candidate.
To believe that Obama is a Kucinich leftist rather than a Clinton centrist is to ignore his own expressed positions. To believe that the world will be markedly improved after an Obama presidency is to ignore the structure of corporate-controlled politics. To believe that Obama is prepared to address the fundamental structure of our political system is to ignore his own investment in it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Barack Obama is asking us to do: vote for him as a change maker against all evidence to the contrary. That sounds more like the hope of audacity than the audacity of hope.
Marc Lamont Hill is assistant professor of urban education and American Studies at Temple University.