Diane Abbott: Obama can transform the world's image of America

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The Independent Online

Barak Obama's campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination has taken off like a rocket. Some people may be disappointed that he only drew level with Hillary Clinton on "Super Tuesday", but that is an extraordinary achievement when only two weeks ago Clinton had double-digit leads in most of the states concerned. And, like a rocket, his campaign has illuminated many things in a sudden blaze of light.

What it has revealed about the attitudes to race of many white British pundits and commentators is not to their credit. Obama had barely won his first caucus when one commentator devoted his column to complaining that it was harder in politics for white women than for black men. As there are 14 white women in the US Senate compared to one black man (Senator Obama) this was a particularly silly claim.

A few days later another pundit poured scorn on Obama for bringing race into his campaign. She accused him of "whining" and of "detestable dirty tricks". Yet every single US commentator has acknowledged that it was the Clintons who had actually played the race card.

Blaming the black victim rather than the white perpetrator (and accusing them of whining into the bargain) is obviously a reflex action for some British pundits. And more than one has weighed in to claim that Obama is not really black, because he is too articulate and cultured. As a result they confidently predicted that black people would not vote for him. The racism of this position is so breathtaking that I will not dwell on it (for fear of being accused of "whining"). And black people have turned out to vote for Obama in record numbers.

The campaign has also shed an unflattering light on the Clintons. Any black person who has ever run for office will be familiar with their outrage that a black person should actually run against them. And it is clear, like all too many people, that their care and concern for black people does not extend beyond the point when one actually has the temerity to challenge them for something that they want.

I admire Bill Clinton. But his willingness to play the attack dog on race for his wife shows that you can take the man out of the American Deep South, but you cannot take the Deep South out of the man. I also admire Hillary Clinton. But her touting of the bogus "35 years of experience" argument is shameless. On that basis Laura Bush should be the Republican presidential nominee. In reality Hillary has served just one more term in the Senate than Obama and (unlike him) has never served at a local level.

There are many clever and far more experienced women in American politics that have done it under their own steam. There is only one reason Hillary is a presidential candidate rather than them; she is married to Bill Clinton. You can call a woman who has based her whole political career on being married to a powerful man many things, but a feminist icon is not one of them.

However the campaign has also shed light on something rather wonderful. Millions of Americans are determined to turn the page on the Bush era. Obama has a long way to go. If he successfully fights off the Clinton attack machine, he will have to take on an even more ruthless Republican onslaught. We can expect them to dig up some drug-dealing cousin, an African relative with a grievance, and even a trembling Southern rose with whispered allegations of sexual harassment.

But, if he survives, the prize for the Democratic Party is not just winning a presidential election. Obama can take the South away from the Republicans on the basis of the huge black turn-out that only he can guarantee. And he can combine that with urban America and the intelligentsia to recreate the old FDR Roosevelt coalition that enabled him to win four presidential elections. Term limits would restrict Obama to two but Washington would be transformed, not just for a presidential term, but for a generation.

For the rest of us the Obama campaign is more than about mere American domestic politics. That moment on a freezing January day in Washington when a black man and his family stand on the steps of the Capitol to take the presidential oath will be flashed up all over the world. The wordless message to young black people from New York to Nairobi, Johannesburg to Brixton will be of a whole new world of personal possibilities. America's sense of itself will be redeemed. The way that the world sees it will be transformed.

Maybe Obama will go on to be a disappointment. But Clinton, Edwards or McCain could disappoint too. And none of them offer the transforming possibilities of a successful Obama presidential run. He could truly be America's bridge to the 21st century.

The writer is Labour MP for Hackney North

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08