Thursday, June 5, 2008

Obama Bashert (באַשערט)

Some political observers may think it's ironic that, thanks to the scheduling Gods, Sen. Barack Obama's victory lap ended up taking place, of all places, at a speech in front of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Obama at AIPAC conference in DC, NYT photo

I happen to think it was appropriate. Destiny even.

Certainly, there is cause to see irony in the fact that immediately after clinching the Democratic nomination on June 3, Obama's first big speech on June 4, would take place at an AIPAC conference. Indeed, while Obama grabbed the nomination by firing up the traditional liberal coalition— minorities, youth, post-college grads, upscale urban voters, and, in this cycle, anti-war voters—he's actually had a highly-publicized problem with another standby bloc in the Democratic equation: Jewish voters.

CBS exit polling of 30 primaries confirmed Obama's "Jewish Problem" —showing that Obama trailed Clinton 45 to 53 among Jewish voters. [Note, every time I try to link the CBS poll, my computer crashes. You will find a link to the poll on this page.]

There were obvious reasons, fair or not, for Obama's troubles with the Jews: Obama's camera-happy, longtime minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, liked to channel trite anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan; Obama's mixed messaging on Iran (he's willing to hold talks of some kind with loopy hater Mamoud Ahmadinejad) raised questions about Obama's commitment to Israel; as did that unsolicited endorsement from Hamas. And there was also his "suspect" Muslim name.

Additionally, Obama has had to contend with some bad history. American Jews and American blacks have had a chilly relationship (think Jesse Jackson, Crown Heights, and Louis Farrakhan again) ever since the Black-Jewish alliance of the Civil Rights era came unglued in the late 1960s. The logic of Black nationalism connected African Americans with Third World Liberation movements starring revolutionaries like Yasser Arafat's PLO. It also emphasized Black self reliance, which shattered a long standing relationship where Jews had been at the forefront of desegregation. Resentment replaced camaraderie.

Obama is keenly aware of his problem with Jews. Last January, he went out of his way to speak out against "the scourge of anti-Semitism" in the black community in front of a black audience during an MLK celebration at MLK's own Ebenezer Baptist.

So, is it ironic that Obama would wind up speaking at AIPAC's annual conference on the very day his campaign—despite lukewarm support from Jews—triumphed? Or did the scheduling Gods know exactly what they were up to?

I think the scheduling Gods knew exactly what they were up to. It was bashert, (Yiddish for destiny): On this, Obama's first day as the Democratic nominee-in-waiting (with the cameras of the world rolling,) Obama landed in a roomful of Jews where he got to set the record straight and set the stage for his campaign agenda.

Obama told the initially cordial, but ultimately cheering crowd, that he would "take an active role ... from the start of [his] administration" (a nice dig a Bush) and "make a personal commitment" to "a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security."

It was a bit of destiny because I think it's going to happen. Despite the mess that President Bush has made in the Middle East (or perhaps because of it), fate has set the table for a change agent like Obama.

While I've been a bitter Clinton fan, I recognized how awesome an Obama presidency would be. The one thing that's genuinely excited me about Obama all along is my belief that he'll be a miracle worker in the Middle East.

Here's why.

1) Obama is a PR disaster for Osama. If America elects a black man (and not a former Joint Chiefs of Staff black man, but a liberal Democrat who worked as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago), Bin Laden's rhetoric about America's "imperialist and racist" policies is going to fall flat in the Arab world. Electing Obama would be a shocker to the haters. And a conundrum for their despots.

2) Obama himself, as the symbol for this revolution of equality (and of America's true values), is going to have rock star status around the world. He will be greeted in the Middle East with cheering crowds. This good will on the ground is going to allow him to press adversaries for change.

(Check it, even as the Islamic world postures about Obama's AIPAC speech, the Iranians shelved their usual bombast. According to Al Jazeera today:
"Iranians responded cautiously, but optimisticly, with officials expressing hope he can bring about change in Iran-US relations.Hamidreza Hajibabaee, member of Iranian parliament, said: 'We hope that Obama turns his words into actions, helps the Islamic Republic of Iran believe that the US has given up enmity and paves the way for fair negotiations.'"

3) Obama is a peacemaker. I'm not sure what the appropriate comparison is. It's not at the level of MLK or Ghandi, (maybe it's Andy Griffith's Sheriff character from the Andy Griffith Show?), but I'm curious to see how Obama's political foes— domestic and internationally—will navigate this dude. He challenges belligerence with that Jay-Z "Dirt off Your Shoulder" thing. Unlike Bush, who played into Ahmadinejad (and infamously now) bin Laden's hands, Obama lowers the temperature, inspiring conversation rather than shouting.

He's not a wimp or an "appeaser" though. I finally recognized that Obama's got game when McCain tried to frame Obama as a dangerous Commie symp for suggesting that the U.S. shoud talk to Iran or Hamas. (President Bush seconded McCain's trap by hinting to the Israeli Knesset that Obama was Neville Chamberlain.) Obama spun out of the full-court-press trap by expertly reframing the whole issue— with the liberals as the bad asses.

"What are George Bush and John McCain afraid of?" Obama countered, "the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons, and Iran doesn't have a single one. When the world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust, Kennedy talked to Khrushchev and he got those missiles out of Cuba. Why shouldn't we have the same courage and the confidence to talk to our enemies? That's what strong countries do, that's what strong presidents do, that's what I'll do when I'm president of the United States of America."

He added:

"If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy, led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with Ronald Reagan, 'cause that's what he did with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, or Richard Nixon 'cause that's what they did with [Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung]. That’s exactly the kind of diplomacy we need to keep us safe."

Suddenly, the softy liberal position—talk instead of testosterone—became the macho one (with a macho subtext: We've got something to say to Iran.) It was an unprecedented move for a liberal, and Obama did it flawlessly.

Probably said all this much better—this idea that the stars have aligned and now's the time for Obama—in the Stranger's Obama endorsement in February with this quick line: "And no, it's not about race (although we don't underestimate the symbolism—to the rest of the world—of electing a black man after eight years of John Wayne diplomacy)."

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