President Obama’s campaign team “is afraid of Mitt Romney”. So declared Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on American politics. Sugrue predicts a “nail-biting race” and stated that the ultimate question in the 2012 presidential campaign will be “Who is going to be able to mobilize supporters to turn out in enough numbers?”
Sugrue said if Romney emerges as the Republican nominee he will likely tone down his conservative rhetoric and try to reposition himself as a moderate. He suggested this could pose a real challenge for Obama’s campaign, which follows a “fundamentally centrist” position that has dominated a post-McGovern Democratic Party.
Obama’s best hope, Sugrue argued is to embrace a more Populist ideology. “He needs to talk about the economy in a way that recognizes the profound insecurity Americans feel right now.” Sugrue said Obama could take a cue from Elizabeth Warren, who is running for Senate in Massachusetts. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Warren rose in the polls after her fierce criticism of Wall Street following the financial meltdown.
Sugrue gave an intimate lecture about Obama to an audience of about thirty at Earth Bread + Brewery restaurant Monday evening. It was the second event in Mt. Airy USA’s (MAUSA) Metropolitan Minds speaker series.
Sugrue, who specializes in urban history, civil rights, race relations and 20th century America provided insight on the President from his most recent book entitled, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race.
Understanding Obama’s popularity
The 2008 presidential election was “heralded as a landmark moment”, Sugrue said, signifying to many an entry into a “post-racial America”. To many African-Americans, it represented a dream deferred that had finally been fulfilled. Sugrue remarked that even foreign observers were impressed by the US being the first major Western nation to elect a person of color to its highest office. Although Sugrue admitted Obama’s election win in 2008 owed much to the Civil Rights Movement, he insists on a “need to move beyond this abstract idea of Obama as the embodiment of the Civil Rights struggle”. The reality is more “something of a fusion”.
Sugrue presented what he called the “Four Ps” in understanding the history and influences which shaped the man: Precursors, Politicians, Professors and Preachers.
Growing up in Hawaii, the President “learned from afar” of the freedom struggles of the Civil Rights era. Sugrue explained that it was Obama’s white mother who introduced him to the thinkers, writers and activists of that and earlier equality movements. Malcolm X’s autobiography and “especially his reinvention of himself” was a strong early influence which built the foundation for Obama’s “profound belief in coalition building”.
Sugrue asserted that Obama felt the traditions of community self-determination which came from black nationalism to be important but insufficient to solve urban problems of racial inequality. Obama learned to “bridge divisions” using the power of persuasion and mutual dialogue. “Emphasis on race as a community building tool continues to shape his career.”
Behind-the-scenes politicians who built interracial coalitions, such as Edward Brooke, Shirley Chisholm and former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode forged the path which led to Obama’s political ascension. “To understand Barack Obama is to put him in the context of a mostly forgotten history of African-American urban politicians,” Sugrue remarked.
Another “key figure” in shaping Obama’s political trajectory was David Axelrod, who became his chief campaign strategist and a Senior Advisor in the Obama administration.
Former US President Bill Clinton also had a deep influence on Obama. Sugrue pointed out that while in 1996, Obama was “a staunch critic” of welfare reform drafted by then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich and signed into law by Clinton, he later shifted his position. This shift reflects what Sugrue proclaimed as “an important current in Obama which is that of a Realpolitik.”
Disciplined, pragmatic and “the most intellectual of modern American presidents,” Sugrue related how Obama’s university experiences at Columbia and Harvard caused him to “really come to grips with racial division and tensions” in 80s America. But it was Obama’s “demonstration of bi-partisanship” that garnered his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and served as a “blue print for his subsequent political career.” Sugrue detailed. Obama’s role as professor at University of Chicago Law School and grass-roots community building efforts further shaped his political aspirations and views.
It was Obama’s community organization endeavors in Chicago which led to a two decade long relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Sugrue stated that when Wright’s sermons were scrutinized, Obama was subsequently painted as a “crypto-radical” as a result of misrepresentation by media who did not understand black liberation theology.
Sugrue considers Obama’s response to the controversy involving his relationship with Wright to be his “most extraordinary moment in his extraordinary political campaign.” Obama delivered his March 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union” in Philadelphia. Sugrue called it a “powerful summation of his scholarship, ideology, and biography” which he believes saved Obama’s career.
The title of Sugrues book “Not Even Past” takes it name from an excerpt of that speech in which Obama paraphrased the famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” by author William Faulkner from his novel Requiem for a Nun.
Mt. Airy USA’s Metropolitan Minds speaker series brings prominent Philadelphia figures to Mt. Airy by hosting lecture events at local restaurants. A portion of the ticket proceeds go towards fundraising to support Mt. Airy USA’s community development efforts. The organization hopes events such as these will bring visitors to the neighborhood.
In addition, MAUSA’s Executive Director Anuj Gupta officially announced that the Night Market event will be returning to Mt. Airy this year.