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The Obama generation
Reihan Salam, Forbes
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November 04, 2008 19:36 IST

I've really been struggling with this election. I have great affection for John McCain [Images], and I strongly believe that he is the candidate who most keenly understands the next steps we need to take in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, I don't have a lot of confidence in his understanding of the domestic challenges we're going to face over the next four years, and his campaign has been painful to watch. Extremely, extremely painful.

My sense is that McCain believes that a Barack Obama [Images] presidency would represent a very dangerous moment for America in the world, and that he sees it as his patriotic duty to do whatever it takes to defeat Obama. This attitude has led McCain to run a campaign that has been ham-fistedly overaggressive and out of touch with the mood of the country.

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As for Obama, well, he's certainly run a brilliant campaign. I won't vote for him, and I've never been seriously tempted to become a so-called 'Obamacon'. I worry that the policy proposals nearest and dearest to Obama will make our economy less resilient and less productive over the long haul.

Yet I can understand where his supporters are coming from. Our elections have become, for a whole host of complicated reasons, struggles for recognition. Who represents the real America? Which America is the real America? When Sarah Palin [Images] recently referred to small town America as the real America, she was entering a debate that has been going for centuries.

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Obama embodies a younger, more urban, more ethnic America, the America that is taking shape in our elementary schools. As a born-and-bred Brooklynite, this is my America, and it is one that has been largely absent from our national leadership during the long era of Republican dominance.

Though Republicans have struggled mightily to look more like America, Colin Powell and Condi Rice can't change the fact that the GOP has increasingly become the party of evangelical Southern white men. It certainly doesn't help that Powell, a self-described Rockefeller Republican, has just endorsed Obama.

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Because I share many of the values of evangelical Southern white men -- a love of free enterprise and the movie Red Dawn among them -- I feel comfortable in their presence, but I've never been under the illusion that I'm one of them.

Last week, I spoke to an inner-city high school teacher who waxed eloquently on the incredible enthusiasm of her black and Latino students for Obama. I have to admit, I felt a little frustrated by this: How many dissenting voices are they hearing, I thought to myself. Even so, it was a reminder that there are large swathes of the American population that feel truly alienated from the mainstream of American life, and this is a real tragedy. A few decades from now, these kids will either move America forward and provide me with a comfortable retirement, or they will be sullen strangers in their own country.

When Michelle Obama told a cheering crowd that her husband's presidential campaign was the first time in her adult life that she'd felt proud of her country, she was pilloried by conservatives as a lousy ingrate. I'll admit that Michelle Obama's remarks left me sputtering too.

But it also occurred to me that I knew many people who felt the same way. Yes, some were, like Michelle Obama, privileged upper-middle-class professionals, but others were people who've felt the sting of racism and sexism and who've experienced American life as a struggle. We need to find some way to talk to each other, and we haven't yet.

Can Barack Obama change America? And by that I don't just mean "Can Barack Obama tinker around the edges of the welfare state?" or "Can Barack Obama raise the quality of presidential rhetoric?" -- both of these things are obviously true, and both are relatively minor. Because I'm surrounded by so many ardent Obama supporters, I'm really wondering if Obama can change our national self-perception and renew our national self-confidence.

If this sounds over-the-top, it's worth remembering that Ronald Reagan pulled off a similar trick. Just as Obama is the favourite candidate of younger voters today, there's no question that Reagan's instinctive libertarianism resonated with a generation that felt suffocated by the mediocrity of the 1970s.

Rage against stagflation and diminished expectations sparked a revolution in American business, one that made the economy more productive but also more unequal. Whether or not Obama wins in November, I'm curious as to how the Obama generation will change this country.

My hope, for our country's sake, is that this generation won't undo what Reagan wrought, but rather that it will deepen our democracy by bringing new Americans into the fold. Either that or they will, like the French revolutionaries, force us to adopt the metric system.

Reihan Salam is an associate editor at The Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation. The co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, he writes a weekly column for

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