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20 Minutes: Dewey Clayton on President-elect Barack Obama

November 12th, 2008

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Dewey Clayton

“20 Minutes” is a series of occasional interviews with University of Louisville faculty about their research, expertise or scholarly interest. (Submit an interview suggestion.)

On Nov. 4, U.S. voters elected Barack Obama the next president of the United States and the nation’s first African-American president. Political science professor Dewey Clayton is researching and writing a book about Obama’s presidential campaign. He offers his thoughts on it, U.S. and global reaction to the presidential election, and the implications of Obama’s victory for future minority political candidates.

How have your students responded to this presidential campaign?

Most are ecstatic about it. They’ve been able to get involved. There’s been a level of excitement. They’re coming up and telling me, “Obama was in Cincinnati and I was there!” “Barack Obama is in Indianapolis, and I’m going!” “Sarah Palin’s in Jeffersonville, Ind., and I’m going!” I haven’t seen this level of involvement with my students since I’ve been here at UofL.

Are we beginning to see a generational shift in both how young people view race and politics?

There’s no question there’s a huge generational shift here. Race is a subject Americans are somewhat reluctant to talk about. In my classes, we have to talk about it — it’s the essence of some of the classes I teach. I’m doing a political discourse class this semester, and the subject matter is the modern day civil rights movement. One of the things that is so wonderful is that we talk about and watch Rep. John Lewis when he was a young member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then the students will see a snippet about the current campaign, and they’ll say, “I saw John Lewis being interviewed last night.” They’re seeing the connections between what happened in the civil rights movement and what’s happening today. Now that Barack Obama has become the president-elect, they’re seeing that things said by people then, e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and the hopes and aspirations they had then — are coming to fruition now.

Generation Y as a whole doesn’t see race as my generation did. I think that’s a really natural progression. When I started public school in 1963, I had to go to a segregated school. I lived in a different South than the South we have today. Students are appalled when I show them pictures of signs in the Jim Crow South that say “whites only” or “colored only.” It’s all foreign to them now.

Since the election, I have heard many blacks and whites say they’re proud of America and the possibilities for the future of America. This is truly a place where you can tell a child — no matter what color or gender, no matter how poor — you can be anything you want to be.

Obama’s candidacy seems to have helped bring America together as a true community. Obama often talks about how there are no red states, and there are no blue states, there is the United States of America. Clearly, we’re pulling the country together across racial lines.

What made this campaign successful?

Obama himself. He is extremely bright. His temperament is incredible. He has an unflappable calmness and coolness about him. That has served him well. He is a great communicator. He has inspired people, and that is something we haven’t seen in quite some time. People talk about John F. Kennedy as an inspiration; Barack Obama has that ability as well. That’s a unique talent. That’s a God-given talent.

His campaign was well organized. Without a doubt he had a disciplined and organized campaign — a grassroots, bottom up campaign that I don’t think we have seen in quite sometime.

Second, he was able to tap into modern technology. Clearly, young people were attracted to his candidacy; technology helped here. The Internet has become a huge tool for communication, announcing things before they happen, while they were happening, and after they happened.

One of Obama’s key strategists is a Facebook co-founder who also helped engineer the Barack Obama website. He understood that this is the way young people communicate today, and that if he created a website in a format they were already comfortable with, young people would use the website. He used it extremely effectively — getting out the message, getting out support, getting volunteers, and getting out the vote.

The Internet became a powerful tool for raising money. Obama was smart enough to realize that by having just a small group of wealthy financiers finance the campaign, they would reach their campaign finance limitations rather quickly. However, by having ordinary people donate $10, $15, $25 contributions, his campaign could keep going back to these individuals. Plus, this type of fundraising gives people a personal stake in the campaign and gets more people involved.

When did it appear clear he had a chance to win?

It’s almost incredible to think that the world didn’t know who Obama was not long ago. Most of America didn’t know who he was, before he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. During the 2006 Congressional elections, he gained “rock star” status as he was sought out, and travelled the country campaigning for Democrats, including John Yarmuth, who was running in the 3rd Congressional district here in Louisville. I think he realized timing is extremely important. Some of his advisers told him, “Now is the time.” You only have a short window of opportunity.

Many people said he’s too young. It’s too early for him to run for president. He doesn’t have the experience. He needs to wait. Many in the black community were saying that. In the early polling after he declared his candidacy, the majority of black Americans in the country were supporters of Hillary Clinton. Given the fact that Bill Clinton had been called the first “black president,” many blacks — particularly members of the political establishment, members of Congress, many top political black figures — had originally aligned with Hillary Clinton, who emerged as the early frontrunner. Obama faced a formidable path.

That began to change in Iowa. In politics, before you can become a serious candidate, you have to prove you are a viable candidate; you have to prove you can win. If you can prove you’re a viable candidate, people begin opening their pocketbooks.

Iowa is a predominantly white state. For Barack Obama to go there and do well and win in the Iowa caucuses, people began saying, wait a minute, maybe we need to take Obama more seriously. As the campaign went on, when it moved to primaries in southern states with large African American populations, people began to see what was happening. You had superdelegates in those communities who had been on board with Hillary Clinton, but their constituents voted for Obama. That put them in a predicament. Were they going to stick themselves out on a limb and not go with Obama? Many of the black elected officials had to change their allegiance to support the candidate their constituencies supported.

There began to be a shift, so much so, clearly at one point that initial hesitation of African Americans to support Obama began to change.

How does this affect future minority politicians?

Obama represents a new wave; he represents a different type of African American politician. Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988. He did a wonderful job. In fact at one point in 1988, he was considered the front-runner in the Democratic primary. He won several southern primaries. He also registered thousands of African American voters who had not been registered.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s, he was unable to transcend race. He ran as a black man running for president. However, John Lewis said at the time, that even though Jackson didn’t win, he laid the foundation so that one day, an African American man or woman could be president. Interestingly enough, here we are at that point.

But Obama represents a different kind of candidate — I don’t want to say post-racial, but post-civil rights. If one looks across the political landscape in this country, we see several examples of a new generation of African American leadership. For example, Deval Patrick is governor of Massachusetts; Corey Booker, is mayor of Newark, New Jersey; Jesse Jackson, Jr. is a congressman from Chicago; Harold Ford Jr. is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council; and Artur Davis is a congressman from Alabama. These individuals are well-educated, politically savvy and are appealing to citizens of all colors because of their competency and not the color of their skin. This bodes well for the future of African American politicians in this country — and for the future of the country.

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