The Significance of the Nation’s First Elected African American President

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, joined in our firehouse studio by Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science, history and African American studies at Columbia University in New York City, the author of many books, including Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future.


Welcome to Democracy Now!




AMY GOODMAN: Also, I wanted to offer condolences on the death of your dad, right about the same time as the death of Barack Obama’s grandmother.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. The greatest regret I have is that my father didn’t live to see Obama’s victory. But I think that my father would have been ecstatic at the event last night.


AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect to see what you have seen? Did you expect this to come to pass now?


MANNING MARABLE: Actually, yes, for two reasons. One, that we had demography on our side, that is, that the United States is rapidly being transformed ethnically, that by—within the next thirty years, the majority of the population of the United States is going to consist of people of color, of Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans, so someone like Obama was inevitable to emerge within the political system. I’m somewhat surprised it occurred so suddenly into the twenty-first century, but someone would have inevitably emerged.


The second thing that is striking to me is that Obama represents, I think, a group of kind of race-neutral African American leadership, that include the Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who are not race-based politicians, who appeal directly to whites, who try to sidestep issues of race, who are pragmatists, ideologically more centrist than the liberal politicians who emerged out of the civil rights and black freedom struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.


AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama will be the forty-fourth president of the United States. He talks about conciliation, about representing the people that didn’t even vote for him. But who did vote for him? Can you talk about the breakdown? I mean, we’re talking about, what was it, one of the largest victories in the vote in more than forty years.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. No Democrat has achieved the kind of—the margin that Barack had since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. You had the largest number of Americans vote in US history, about 136 million. If you analyzed the vote of Barack Obama, the foundation of it is kind of like a three-legged stool: over 95 percent of African Americans, in a massive turnout; two-thirds of all Latinos throughout the country; and then, third, something like two-thirds of all Americans under the age of thirty. When you put those three groups together, Americans under thirty, between the ages of eighteen to twenty-nine years of age, that’s about 44 million people. And you had a massive turnout. So, consequently, he started out with these three core constituencies and built a majority of the population across the country. It’s an unprecedented victory that allows him to really dictate public policy.


AMY GOODMAN: People were very concerned during the primary that here you had Obama and Clinton going at it, ripping each other down, and there was John McCain just sailing along. But now many are saying that actually it kept them in the limelight, they were hashing out issues, they were always there, and that McCain was just coasting, not doing much of anything.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. I think that Obama owes Clinton a great deal, in terms of preparing his forces to win in the general election. His ground game was far superior to McCain’s. There was tremendous enthusiasm. His organization in getting out the vote, especially in states that had early voting, was astonishing. And the Republicans had nothing to really counter it.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, because it was precisely what the Republicans, really pushed by Governor Palin, but she was doing the job for John McCain, mocked at the Republican convention. They talked about this community organizer and asked what does that mean.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. But it was the lessons of being a community organizer that allowed Obama to understand how a Democrat was going to win nationwide, that it was imperative for him to develop networks where you reach out into communities. You literally develop an organizing strategy to mobilize several million people and to bring them to the polls. But it was more than simply an electoral strategy. It was a social movement strategy that allowed Obama to win.


AMY GOODMAN: But you also have, on the one hand, the grassroots community organizing, but something that perhaps works against it in the future and something that grassroots groups have to deal with: the massive amount of money that was poured into this campaign, unleashed by, well, not abiding by campaign finance rules, opting out of the public campaign finance system. And the question now is who Barack Obama will answer to.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. The way I think about Obama now is that he represents something of a reverse-Reagan, in the sense that what Reagan represented was a hard-line, right-wing public policy agenda that was framed around clear principles—anti-communism, smaller government, building up the military—but with appeals to the center; Obama is like the reverse of that. You’re going to get, instead of a right-center leadership, you’re going to get a center-left leadership. Obama is going to govern from the center, but he’s going to make strong appeals to the liberal left. And that’s what his government will look like, with core principles: energy independence, alternative energy, an end to the war in Iraq, the economic—addressing America’s economic problems.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the end of the war in Iraq. I mean, some could argue that really that is why President—why Barack Obama is president today, because he spoke out against the war, and Hillary Clinton did not—


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right.


AMY GOODMAN: —before the invasion. Now, though, people will have to hold him to that.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right.


AMY GOODMAN: That might have been, although people in the polls coming out yesterday said it was the economy, what propelled him to this point, because he had to win the primary, was that issue.


MANNING MARABLE: That’s right. I think that the real challenge now is not so much what Obama does, but what do progressives do? Because we have—we’re now in an uncomfortable and unusual situation, where, for many people left of center, we actually have a friend in the White House. You know, I can’t remember, during my lifetime—and I’m fifty-eight years old—where I can actually say that, that someone who understands clearly the positions of the left. Now, we had a lot of silly talk about Obama being a socialist during the last two weeks of the campaign. He’s not. He’s a progressive liberal. But for those of us who are indeed democratic socialists, those of us who are on the left, how do we relate to the government, where someone who ideologically is not an enemy, someone who understands the agenda and the issues that are of concern of the truly disadvantaged? How do we relate to that government? How do we relate to the politics of that administration? This is a real challenge for progressives.


AMY GOODMAN: We heard earlier in the show a woman standing in that mass crowd in Grant Park—and Grant Park has a lot of resonance from forty years ago, from 1968—saying, “Now I feel like this is my America.” It actually reverberated with something Michelle Obama might have said a while ago and got really slammed on: “Now I feel proud to be an American.”


I wanted to go now to some other voices, young voices from Harlem. Yesterday during the day, Democracy Now! producer Nicole Salazar and I headed up to Harlem. We went along Martin Luther King and then over to Frederick Douglass Boulevard and then to Malcolm X Boulevard to a precinct, a voting precinct, right there.


AMY GOODMAN: Did you guys—did you guys vote?


DIAMOND: Yes, we did.


JAFAR: Yeah.


AMY GOODMAN: OK. What’s your name? How old are you?


DIAMOND: My name is Diamond. I’m eighteen years old.


AMY GOODMAN: Is this your first time voting?


DIAMOND: Yes, it is.


AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel?


DIAMOND: It felt great. I’m glad I voted. It’s a change.


JAFAR: Obama.


DIAMOND: Yeah, Obama.


AMY GOODMAN: Did you vote right here?


DIAMOND: Yes, I did.




DIAMOND: Because he’s the best. He’s making a change. I’m not going vote for no McCain.