In recent weeks the Democratic primary race has danced around the issues of race and gender in the close race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Nevada caucuses revealed that people of color overwhelmingly voting for Obama and that women going for Hillary. Both candidates have been hesitant to talk about the race or gender issue explicitly since Clinton’s gaffe about Martin Luther King and LBJ, but it is clear that race and gender are real, though largely unacknowledged factors in this race.
Personally, I wish Obama and Clinton would talk about more about race and gender because I think both can be a real positive factor if either is elected president. Obviously if either of them are elected, they will be a “first.” However, beyond that each of them would bring a perspective to the White House that has been sorely missing in our 200+ years of white, male (usually wealthy) presidential leadership.
As the son of a Kenyan father and a white Midwestern mother, Obama brings a perspective as one who has been excluded and oppressed because of his skin color. Moreover, his social and political views were largely shaped through his experiences as a community organizer in the poor black community of Southside Chicago. He has seen poverty and suffering firsthand, and at the same time knows the capacity of normal people to organize and advocate for their rights. Obama’s critique of Clinton’s comment regarding Martin Luther King did not focus on race but rather on the fact that she did not appear to value the power of normal people to organize and make an impact on public policy. Obama has seen that power at work, and knows it can and has made a difference. Furthermore, having spent some of his childhood in Indonesia and having reconnected with his family in Kenya, Obama has a global perspective running through his blood that no U.S. president has ever had. One can only imagine that when Obama goes to speak with leaders from Africa or the Middle East, they will see something of themselves in him that they do not see in George W. Bush or any of his predecessors. These things alone will not assure Obama more success than other presidents, but he brings a worldview as a member of an oppressed group that heightens his sensitivity and could raise his credibility with others. (For insight into Obama’s background read his first book, Dreams of My Father.)
For her part Clinton brings a perspective as a woman that likewise is sorely needed. The short-lived (Fall 2006) TV show “Commander in Chief,” starring Geena Davis as the president, highlighted the fact that women in leadership tend to be more collaborative and inclusive. Studies of women in positions of executive leadership support this view. At the time the show was running Clinton was just exploring the possibility of a presidential run but it was clear to me, as I am sure it was to others, that the show was trying to make the case that a woman could be as effective a president as a man. Clinton doesn’t have the cowboy mentality that often afflicts male presidents in a time of crisis. Bush’s now largely discredited rationale for invading Iraq is only one of many examples of that mentality. Furthermore, as a wife and a mother, Clinton has an inherent concern for the well-being of families, and children and women that men often miss. Her book, It Takes a Village, speaks to her awareness of these issues. And while she is often castigated by the Right for her pro-choice position, she has written and spoken powerfully about the need to reduce the need for abortion by reducing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies especially among teenage girls. As a woman Clinton is constitutionally more connected to victims of war, poverty, and domestic abuse than former presidents. When bills are being considered or foreign policy decisions are being made, it would be a refreshing change to have someone who thinks more of the victims than victory. I believe Clinton brings that perspective.
Now obviously, Obama’s ethnic/racial heritage and Clinton’s gender do not assure that the things I have mentioned are true, or would be operative if either of them became president; but it does increase the likelihood. We all know that in moments of stress and crisis, our true values, beliefs and attitudes tend to emerge. The presidency is a high stress job with many crises. In those times, my guess is that with either Obama or Clinton in the White House, different responses based on their different backgrounds would emerge and would take us in new and positive directions.
Before this election is over in November 2008, race and/or gender will need to be discussed. In this country, we have difficulty discussing these issues without devolving into a shouting match. My hope is that instead of reducing the discussion to the “race card” or the “gender card,” we can begin to appreciate that by virtue of their race or gender that Obama or Clinton might bring to the White House a constructive perspective that has never been there before.