Why I'm Betting On Barack Obama's Victory

by Bernard-Henri Levy | July 10, 2008

There are unknowns, of course.

The persona of John McCain is already in play and it would be wrong to underestimate him. The man is remarkable, surprising in his opposition to torture and Guantanamo, audacious when he challenged the economic policies of the two Bush administrations. And isn't it said that Democrat John Kerry considered for a time asking this unconventional conservative to share the ticket with him?

Then there is also the American art of "junk politics," especially as practiced by the Republicans, and its unpredictable, often devastating effects. When will the below-the-belt stuff begin? On what Internet site will the first photomontages appear of Barack Obama tricked up as a radical Islamist? How many other pastors à la Jeremiah Wright will we see paraded out by "527s," groups on the fringes of the principal parties that are allowed, without bearing any moral or financial responsibility, to launch all kinds of slanderous campaigns?

Then there is another unknown, the American electoral system, which has a way of crushing any lyrical praise. Consider that the objective is to win enough states to be elected. Consider that in 48 of the 50 states there is no difference between winning by a whisker or by an overwhelming majority; in either case the winner is entitled to claim all the electors in that state. Add that the majority of these states tend to show historical preferences for one party or the other, making full-on campaigning useless. The logical conclusion has been that Obama's campaign should concentrate on just 15, 18, maybe 20 swing states, where the idea is to shift a few thousand votes. And the conclusion to that conclusion has been that the focus would have to be on often microscopic local issues, a far cry from the media-magnified notion of a sweeping Obama-mania.

With these caveats in place, here are three good reasons to believe the senator from Illinois will prevail:

1. America has changed. It was the conservative Samuel Huntington who said it in his latest book, "Who Are We?": America is no longer a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon country, European by tradition and white by vocation, that cannot seriously imagine a black man running for the presidency. George W. Bush's two terms? The swing to the far right the country took after 9/11? The campaigns by those opposing abortion, or the partisans of anti-Darwin creationism? Sure, one could see a marked tendency, a fundamental movement. Or one could also, as in my case, see the shock and desperate mobilization of an America that knows it is dying but is trying nonetheless to delay the moment when it realizes it must surrender.

2. Obama is not a typical African-American. Unlike, say, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or Condoleezza Rice, he does not carry with him the heritage of slavery or the memory of segregation because he was born of a Kenyan father. The difference is enormous, because the mirror he holds up to America is no longer one that reflects those dark times, no longer one of unbearable ancestral culpability. Barack Obama can win because he is the first African-American to take, by the grace of his birth, a step away from the two sides of a deep divide--and the first who may now play the card--not of condemnation or damnation--but of seduction, and--as he says over and over--of reconciliation.

3. He is good. What I mean is that he is not only the most charismatic but also the most gifted politician produced by the Democratic machine in a long time.

Look to Denver, in a swing state par excellence, where Obama will probably oversell the fact that his party chose Colorado as the venue for his official nomination. In Florida, another swing state, he is already campaigning against the prospect of offshore oil drilling, which has been imprudently supported by his rival. Listen to him in Nevada, finding the words to touch the core of Hispanics who are first- and second-generation Americans. Not to mention the setting up of a special committee (partly presided over, if you please, by Caroline Kennedy!) to help choose Obama's future vice president. Will it be the former governor of New Mexico? Governor Strickland, in a nod to blue-collar voters? Bill Ritter, for the Catholics? There is, in the very idea of this awkward political dance, the cleverest, most cunning and, in the end, most profitable of tributes being paid to the inescapable weirdness of America's electoral system.

Four years ago I was one of the first to acknowledge, after having heard, then met, Obama, the emergence of a meteor. I hope that today I will not be wrong in announcing that he will very soon be the face of the United States. In any case, I am marking my calendar.

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author, most recently, of "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" and "Ce Grand Cadavre à la Renverse." Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.

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