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obama_clinton.gifI’ve been trying to convince friends that yes, Obama can get votes from white Americans. That’s because American race relations, even when they are antagonistic, are more complicated than their typical portrayal in the media. Andrew Sullivan offers one telling example of a conservative who admits to having racist feelings at times but claims he will vote for Obama.

And in fact, Hilary Clinton will likely have more trouble winning a national election than Obama. Not just because she’s a woman, but also because her public persona defies more conservative expectations regarding women.

If she were on the right, this somewhat brittle persona might in fact work to her advantage (as Thatcher’s worked to hers in England). Unfortunately, the image that the left must work against is that of being unhinged, angry, and less interested in America as a whole than in certain interest groups or international amity. Conservatives can more easily get away with being unhinged because their anger and other uncomfortable emotions are directed not toward the nation as a whole but outside it (towards other countries, hazily defined “terrorists”, or certain minorities who while geographically “within” are made to seem “other” and hence outside). Even a candidate like Dean, who was ironically conservative in some ways, can quickly be undone by the “angry liberal” label (in his case the character assassination had to be pulled off with great precision, including a preliminary raising of expectations).

Hilary has tried to escape the less palatable aspects of the progressive image with typically Clintonian triangulation; unfortunately, she cannot triangulate the unfeminine vibe she gives off on TV. She is caught between two possible negative media portrayals — the first as extreme leftist (as she was portrayed during the health care fiasco in the early 90s) if she displays her passion, and the second as cold opportunist if she withholds it. In other words, she cannot appeal to less progressive voters without seeming dishonest; being a woman is part of that conundrum.

Obama is in the opposite situation. Many Americans would love to prove that they are not racist if given the chance (“I’m not a racist, I have plenty of black friends … and I voted for Obama!).

Hence that Obama is black helps him as much as it hurts him. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are not adequate objects for assuaging white guilt, because they are much rougher around the edges than Obama (something Biden was trying to get at in his ill-advised remarks about Obama being “clean-cut” and “articulate”).

In fact, Obama’s superb demeanor will be far more of a factor than the fact that he is a progressive — many Americans are more sensitive to (and more confident in their judgment of) character than issues.

After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is “it’s the sanity, stupid” a possible slogan?). It’s not a high standard: please, just don’t be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It’s part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.

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