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Barack Obama: Change and Expectations

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By Julianne Malveaux

NNPA Columnist


Senator Barack Obama had an impossible task ahead of him as he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for President on Thursday night. He had to define himself, said some. Outline his differences with Senator John McCain, said others. Pick up the baton being passed from civil rights leaders on the historic 45th anniversary of the March on Washington, still others said. Outline a policy agenda.  Pay tribute and offer respect to the Clintons. Mobilize Democrats who were not that sure of him. Get a post-convention bounce and get back to leading in the polls. 

For all his rhetorical brilliance, there were high expectations and too many tasks for one human being to accomplish in a mere 45 minutes.

I listened intently checklist in hand, hoping that Senator Obama could meet expectations. In some ways, he did.  He laid out a policy agenda. He talked about ways he differed from his Republican opponent, John McCain. He contrasted the world as it might be with the way this world is. He showed extraordinary acumen for lifting up working Americas - nurses and janitors and mid-level managers like his grandmother.  There was much to praise in the Obama speech.  But it didn't grab me.

At a convention where people were begging to be wowed, he offered prose, not poetry.  At a convention where tears flowed freely from the weight of history, Obama neglected to invoke the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King by name. To be sure, Dr. King was invoked by his son, Martin III and his daughter, Bernice. And many other platform speakers. And Obama should not be forced to mention King as if participating in a litany. 

But if Hillary Rodham Clinton could emotionally and authentically mention Harriet Tubman, couldn't the man who has implied that he is the inheritor of the dream bother to mention Dr. Martin Luther King more explicitly than as "a preacher from Georgia".

Some folk say that Obama didn't have to invoke King, and that he, indeed, should not have. Some said that in order to reassure majority America, any explicit mention of race, and of Dr. Martin Luther King, should be avoided.  But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an American hero, not an African-American hero. Dr. King is celebrated, not only in the African American community, but also in our nation. King's dream was not a dream for African-American people; it was a dream for a more inclusive America.  While Obama's speech was not required to be a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it should have acknowledged him.

Perhaps the acknowledgement was implicit. Barack Obama's tribute to working class people is, in many ways, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King stood for people at the bottom, not at the top. 

He talked about the uncashed check, the broken promised and crippled dreams. In speaking of living wages, of workers who would cut their own hours so that friends could work, of people like his mother who struggled for health insurance, Barack Obama embraced King's people if he didn't explicitly acknowledge the dreamer himself. 

He has to win, a colleague said, as we watched the speech and took frantic notes. My colleague, a successful politician who has represented a broad cross section of people, says he does not require racial acknowledgements or affirmations. He requires winning and the possibility of change.

The nation requires the possibility of change. As every speaker reminded Democrats, we are moving in the wrong direction as a nation. We are divesting, not investing, in our country, in our people.  The middle class is disappearing because of the failed policies of the Bush Administration. 

The wars we fight are breaking us, and Barack Obama frontally attacked John McCain on his war policies.

Still, Barack Obama's speech didn't sing, nor did it exceed expectations.  Given the multiple hurdles he faced, he could not possibly clear all of them. But Obama was strong, forceful, focused, policy-oriented, and an agent of change.  

He fumbled on the baton being passed from the leaders of the civil rights movement, he fully embraced the mantle of change, of social and economic justice. In the next nine weeks, he will have opportunities to steady the fumble while wrapping himself in the mantle, to meet enough expectations to not only achieve an electoral victory, but also to be the leader of an America that may finally keep its promises to all of the people.

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