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Many firsts ahead for the first citizen

Barack Obama is far from the victory post. But if he wins, the US is in for a legacy that could outdo Reagan.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2008 22:47 IST

The United States is set for a historic presidential election. If the Democrats win, it will mean a black American in the White House. If the Republicans do, the US gets its first female vice-President. The election of Barack Obama would be the far more momentous development. Besides providing evidence that the US has graduated to being a post-racial society, it would also end a recurring weakness within the party.

The Democratic coalition of minorities, suburban liberals and white workers was a creation of FD Roosevelt. But it had a flaw: white workers were unhappy with minorities on racial grounds and uneasy with suburbanites over values. If the national debate was about economics, these three united. When it switched to abortion and racial quotas, the white worker shifted loyalties. Ronald Reagan dominated US politics for a decade because he pried the white worker out of Democratic hands.

Democrats far outnumber Republicans today. Yet, Mr Obama has been neck-and-neck with Mr McCain. This is because as many as a fifth of Democrats — largely white workers — continue to sit on the fence. If there was an overriding theme during the Democratic convention it was Mr Obama’s portrayal of himself as common rather than cosmopolitan. He chose a vice-presidential candidate with a working class background. Mr Obama’s victory is assured if he ensures the white worker stays in the party fold.

Mr Obama is a phenomenon. He raises more money, mobilises more grassroots workers, wows more foreigners and orates better than any US politician today. The convention provided him an excellent launch pad for the next two months. But his most main task will be to win over this fickle part of the Democratic coalition, a group as uneasy about his Arabic name as they are about his African descent. If he succeeds, Mr Obama could end up doing more than being the first black President. He could usher in a period of single-party political domination that could outdo Reagan and potentially last as long as the one created by Roosevelt.