The reinterpretation of dreams

In 1963, Dr Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gave a speech that went down as one of the greatest in US history. The speech, delivered when lunch counters even in northern Washington were still segregated by race, was a bold challenge to the US to live up the promises of equality laid out at its founding, and live up to them for all people.

“I have a dream,” said King before a massive crowd at the civil rights demonstration, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by

the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Forty-five years later, to the day, after the famous “I have a dream speech,” many commentators speculated as to whether King’s dream had been at least partially realised with Sen. Barack Obama’s official acceptance of the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the US, making him the first black candidate to be nominated by one of the major parties.

Obama’s slight lead over McCain in the polls slipped during the pre-convention, midsummer months to a relative dead heat. While in the Gallup Daily Tracking polls, the first signs of a “convention bounce” have appeared, with Obama opening up an eight-point lead Friday

in national polls, many commentators are wondering why, in a year when the Republican brand, on the heels of a disastrous Bush tenure, is so weak, Obama has failed to open up a bigger lead.

Astute election expert Norman Ornstein compared Obama’s problems to those of Pres. Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. While Reagan’s opponent, incumbent Pres. Jimmy Carter, was hugely unpopular, Reagan failed to open up a big lead until just before the election when he outshone Carter in a debate. Ornstein suspects that Reagan’s troubles may have come from his perceived inexperience on a national scale, bolstered by a lingering image as merely a Hollywood actor.

“The gap [between expectations and realities in the polls] suggests that Obama, like Reagan, will be unable to widen his lead significantly unless and until voters judge him as crossing the bar of acceptability as a president,” wrote Ornstein. “[B]ut the underlying terrain of the electorate and the election suggests that voters will move to him in sizable numbers if and when he does.”

Ornstein thinks that, like Reagan, Obama will have his chance in the three televised debates between Sep. 26 and Oct. 15. But John Judis at the New Republic has a much more daunting reason for Obama’s lag. Judis suggests that Obama, as a black candidate, “starts the general election with a large handicap that he has to overcome.”

“Obama’s race reinforces whatever doubts voters might have about his ability to govern,” wrote Judis yesterday on the New Republic website. “As several psychological experiments have shown, white voters asked to compare white and black candidates of equal accomplishment will tend to view the black candidate as being less competent” and more left-wing. — IPS