The All-American Family Crisis

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If there was ever any doubt about Sen. Barack Obama's ability to connect with the American people, as his strategically brilliant campaign has shown he's capable of doing, that doubt should soon be put to rest, in the wake of a personal tragedy now facing the Democratic nominee—the same tragedy faced by millions of Americans every day.

The campaign announced on Monday that Obama would be taking time away from the campaign this week to fly to Hawaii to attend to the health of his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, said to be gravely ill as a result of a broken hip and other health problems, the nature of which are none of your business or mine. Obama is expected to return to the campaign full-time on Saturday, somewhere in the western United States.


The importance of Dunham in Obama's life has been the stuff of many of his campaign rallies. It's common knowledge that after attending schools in Jakarta, Indonesia, until he was 10 years old, Obama moved back to Honolulu to live with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, starting in the fifth grade and lasting until he graduated from high school. Obama has often credited Madelyn Dunham with giving him much of the motivation and the drive he needed to succeed—to in effect become the man he has become. "She poured everything she had into me," he said at the Democratic National Convention in August.

So there was never any question about Barack going back to Hawaii. Family is family. Full damned stop. End of discussion.

At least you would think so. No sooner had the campaign made the announcement, the "the punditburo"—the D.C./N.Y. axis of campaign commentators, analysts and talking heads—weighed in with their somewhat clinical assessments of how Obama's absence would affect that campaign with two weeks left until Election Day. Already there's been dire, but silly talk about his momentum slowing, suggesting that this unexpected event could be the unintended October surprise, the deus ex machina desperately needed by Sen. John McCain.

Really? To the contrary, this unexpected turn may end up solidifying Obama's connection to voters because his personal tragedy is a universal one. It is certainly an American one, as the country's population ages and stressed out middle-aged citizens find themselves struggling to deal with both the demands of their own jobs and the families they are raising, but also the failing health of the loved ones who raised them.


There's practically no one in this country who has not or will not, sooner or later, be forced to confront the illness of a relative or loved one. It is a human rite of passage. What Obama faces today strongly reinforces a sense of kinship with the American people. Confronting his own personal agony, and entirely at the hand of fate, Obama has connected with Americans on the matter of health care for aging relatives, the prospect of caring for someone who was once a caregiver and the ways in which the unexpected often trumps the best-laid plans.

Obama's response to this blow mirrors that of all Americans confronting a relative's imminent mortality: When things go south, you drop what you're doing and take care of business. Period. That response underscores the humanistic aspect of his personal narrative, and how it dovetails with that of millions of Americans. No matter what your party is, no matter your affiliation, you can relate to this. Or you will someday.


Setting aside his trajectory into the political life of the nation, his soaring oratory, his rapport with the crowd, his almost preternatural calm on the frenzied campaign trail, what the country is witnessing now from Barack Obama may well be his most moving communion with the American people.

In ways the pundits don't fully grasp yet, and more than at any other time in this long campaign, Barack Obama is us. Not the African-American us. The American us.


Michael E. Ross is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at; and is a periodic contributor to PopMatters and The Loop. His writing has appeared in, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.

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