Clinton And Obama: Psychology, Politics And Prospects
The Presidential potential of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is great. So how has this embarrassment of riches for Democrats in the USA seemingly become an advantage for John McCain and the Republicans, as the ‘race’ and gender agendas compete for dominance? Do progressive politics in race and gender need to collide?
The current – but perhaps soon to be resolved – contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination has revealed some aspects of the political process usually less visible to outside observers.
To understand what’s happening we probably need to look as closely at the (social) psychology of the evolving situation, as we do at the formal political process.
How did two of the most powerful and internationally visible advocates for equal rights find themselves head to head in the same contest? And what does it tell us about gender, ‘race’, and age in politics?
The prospect of candidature is daunting
Only the most stout-hearted would ever consider running for Presidential nomination. It’s a hiding to nothing for most contenders, it costs millions of dollars, and it requires vast amounts of personal time, energy, drive and gritty optimism.
So we’re not talking about ‘normal’ people when we consider Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Testing the water
Sometimes, nonetheless, the time seems right.
For both Clinton and Obama the Bush administration’s record of failure offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Democrats to take the USA and the world by storm.
And for Clinton it represented the culmination – and justification – of a long period of influence on the global stage. She’d planned for several years to become the first ever female World Leader; and her experience gave her huge justification for this ambition.
Obama’s situation was probably rather more complex. Did his family, worried about his safety, really want him to stand? Would his short time as a Senator be seen as inexperience or as a fresh face? Were race issues going to make things difficult?
But crucially, he will have asked himself, would there ever be a greater opportunity, a more open goal, for whoever was nominated by the Democrats? Best perhaps to put down a marker now….?
It has been said Obama promised his wife he’d only stand once. When could be better for establishing the first black President in office?
Firming the intent
There comes a time for all serious election candidates when they really believe they can win. Surrounded by supporters and campaign workers, they are, however inadvertently, at one remove from the cruel truth that there will be many losers but only one victor.
Presumably this moment came quite early on for Obama. He decided to stand and looks at present as if he will gain the Democratic nomination.
These are very delicate issues, but put bluntly, the contest appears to be developing – as surveys have largely shown – according to the usual lines.
Age, gender or race?
Both candidates have huge appeal to progressive Americans, eager to shrug off the turgid, backward-looking and deeply divisive Bush era. But there are differences not easily dismissed in who the two potential candidates ‘are’.
Clinton is an older (age 60), white woman, inevitably carrying the baggage which decades of deep political engagement bring.
Obama is younger, black and male; and his lack of baggage, because of the good fortune (at 45) of his comparative youth, compensates for his inexperience.
A hierarchy of preference
If things turn out as seems likely we shall have observed again the hierarchies which present in so many aspects of public life.
Given the opportunity to choose between two symbols of progressive – if not leftwing – politics, race is it currently appears perhaps less of an issue (overall?) for the electorate than gender.
Could it be that this consideration in some way enhanced Obama’s enthusiasm for standing so relatively early in his political career? (Earlier in his career he reportedly told a male colleague, Jesse Jackson Jnr., that he, Obama, would only contest a Senate seat if the other man did not.)
Many people across the free world – including me – would like to see Clinton and Obama together on the world stage, running side-by-side as Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. They are as good, in the context of US realpolitik, as it gets.
For some of us there remains nonetheless an unbidden sadness in the realisation that, even now, the odds are apparently stacked against a (any?) woman. More than half the population of the USA is female (an estimated 153 million, of a total population of nearly 302 million – of whom 240 million are ‘white’); but there is – unless you consider Chelsea? – no immediately obvious female presidential successor to Hillary Clinton, if or when she pulls out.
Seeing things longer-term
To many younger people it seems Obama looks the more attractive option, for the reasons we have considered above. Some of us who have been involved in the equal rights movement for decades may, however much we genuinely want to see equality in ‘race’ just as much as we want to see gender, go along with that judgement with a heavy heart.
Perhaps the truth is this: Gender becomes more oppressive for many women as they experience full maturity – it’s when hard ‘family vs career’ choices have to be made that the full force of being biologically female hits one. (And how many women under, say, 35 are ever going to run for president?)
On the other hand, for people of ‘minority’ race, especially if they’re educated men, maybe the oppression lessens a little as maturity approaches and one’s destiny is more one’s own? I would like to think so, anyway – and would be interested to learn more from those who can speak directly about this.
Squaring the circle
These are delicate and difficult matters to discuss.
We are all a product of our individual genetic makeup, and of our socio-economic background, age and culture. No-one is immune from these influences; but everyone is fundamentally entitled to shape and take charge of their own way in life. To enable this to happen requires a very firm commitment, embedded at every level of society, to respect for equality and diversity.
To repeat: Progressives are seemingly spoilt for choice. Both Clinton and Obama are hugely refreshing and talented alternatives to the usual presidential offerings. Either would serve the equality and diversity agenda – so very essential for our future well-being and sustainability – really well.
A step forward or a step back?
But some of us, in spite of our earnest and well-meaning selves, are a bit weary of being the majority which is always and apparently irredeemably second in the race. Especially when, as is the truth for Hillary Clinton, we were there first.
How can feminists – advocates of a progressive perspective which at its best will always seek equality for everyone, female and male, black and white, aged and youthful – cope with the evidence apparently emerging that voters still prefer not to select a woman, if other progressive choices are available? (And, probably, those other candidates have recognised, and can benefit from, this usually unexamined preference…)
As Marie Cocco of the Washington Post puts it, we are now facing the ‘Not Clinton’ Excuse – and that could put things back a very long time.
A challenge Obama must resolve
Somehow the putative President Obama must show this is a challenge to his progressive credentials, and to the inner feelings of many disappointed women who in other respects share his progressive position, which he understands and can accommode.
Perhaps in the current situation the best we can hope for immediately is that Hillary Clinton is acknowledged by Barack Obama in some seriously meaningful way.
The worst possibility is that an extended and exhausting Clinton-Obama contest gives John McCain the opportunity he seeks to slip through the middle and retain the Presidency for the Republicans later this year.
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