Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Obama: Sí, se puede … almost

In an eloquent and stirring concession speech, Barack Obama ended his failed effort in New Hampshire with a rousing call for hope and change.

Assuring his supporters that the campaign would move forward to ultimate victory, Obama, whose message of "change" was picked up by all the major candidates from both parties except McCain, refined his message of inclusiveness to contain the rallying cry of "yes we can".

Reaffirming the belief that when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the American people can rise to the challenge if they have the will to do so, Obama listed off a litany of historical occasions when an apparently quixotic quest became reality through the sheer power of will. The junior Senator from Illinios led followers in an emotional call and response, punctuating each occurrence with the phrase "yes we can".

We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.

We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.


But conspicuously absent in the list of dreamers and visionaries who have shaped the fabric of the nation, was the man perhaps most associated with the phrase "yes we can"; Cesar Chavez.

With his omission of Chavez, and the movement he founded, Obama missed a golden opportunity to reach out Latino voters.

Although he referenced "the call of workers who organized", apparently referring to the UFW, Obama seems to have walked up to a line ….but was reluctant to cross it.

He mentioned a president who inspired us to reach for the moon, and "a king who took us to the mountaintop", but did not reference "the caesar" who coined his new rallying call. He just couldn't bring himself to say the words that would have demonstrated true solidarity with the nations fastest growing demographic …"sí, se puede".

Those three simple words, spoken in their original tongue, would have sent a clear message to all that Obama really means what he says when he speaks of his "new American majority… of rich or poor, black or white, Latino or Asian… ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction"

While some might claim that Obama's use of the slogan in English is an obvious homage to it's originator, and by extension an outreach to Latino voters, the subtlety is easily lost on those not aware of the phrase's history.

This was no more evident than in an exchange between right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan and Air America's Rachel Maddow during MSNBC's coverage of the speech. When Maddow reminded Buchanan of the phrase's Spanish translation, he quickly jumped on it, barking and growling about Obama taking up the cause of "illegal aliens" ....until Maddow pointed out that it was in fact a slogan born out of union organizing, and had resonance for all working people.

And herein lies the problem.

Obama is well aware of the fact that for many voters, their only familiarity with with the phrase comes from the toxic debate over immigration, and when given an opportunity to really demonstrate his "new American majority" of inclusiveness, a chance to enlighten and teach by example, he took the path of least resistance.

For a man who recently claimed just how much words matter, and the great power they have to effect change, what is not said is often just as important as what is.


…oh, well, maybe next time… sí, se puede

13 comments:

Man Eegee said...

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

I caught that last night and wondered, "Is he really praising the Manifest Destiny movement?" I haven't chosen a candidate to vote for on Feb 5th, for the record.

Great post, as always!

Duke1676 said...

Hi Manny,

Hi Manny,

Over at Big Orange quite a few have voiced the opinion that Obama's choice to invoke "yes we can" in English rather than Spanish was a very clever political move to send a message to "those in the know" while keeping the xenophobes in the dark.

To me, if that is true, it is only reminiscent of Bush's 2000 dog-whistle campaign where he would site "dred scott" or reference scripture to send "coded" messages to the evangelical crowd while keeping the vast majority of us in the dark until informed about the subterfuge.

And frankly that would be even more disheartening. Obama missing the opportunity to truly reach out to Latinos is one thing …playing Bush-like political games is quite another from the candidate whose supposed to embody a new beginning.

I like the guy, although I haven't made a final choice....I just hope he really lives up to the rhetoric and the message....and isn't just a better player at the same old game

a4L said...

I watched and I heard it too. If Edwards drops out, I'll probably jump on the Obama train.

Anonymous said...

Obama is an empty suit with an even emptier resume. He keeps chanting "change", which means nothing without some substance. Even bad change is still change. As the flavor of the month, he is nothing more than a media created image and that will slowly desolve as more people realize he does not have what it takes to be President. The word "novelty" fits him well.

Andrew J. Eickmann said...

This is classic Obama. Issues of race and ethnicity are everywhere and nowhere in his stump speeches--rarely explicit, but always present. I think "Yes we can" is clearly meant to resonate with Latinos, without setting off the xenophobes. You can see this as Bush-like codespeak, or as a textbook example of re-framing.

In Obama's speech, "Yes we can!" is embedded deep in the narrative of American history and progress. If the speech resonates with narrow minds who might be put off by the phrase "Si se puede"...is this pandering? Or, on the other hand, is this the way to broaden the perspective of the xenophobes?

Rico said...

Interesting post and perspective and unfortunately, probably right on the mark! Its odd that McCain has a better position and is less afraid than the Dems. Obama has former Chavez adviors on his team using Chavez inspired community organizing srategies. Its impossible that they other than fearful of angering people. Yes the Latino vote will increase in November, but when your top Dems vote for the fence (Obama) and stop the NY driver's license law (Clinton) its hard to assume Latinos will come out of the woodwork for Rep Lite over Rep heavy!

laura said...

Rico is right. None of the Democrats will enact a change - for the better - unless they are pushed very very hard. We shouldn't expect it so we won't be disappointed or surprised.

Obama is a master at vague progressive-sounding phrases and actually conservative proposals when you look at the fine print. This is how he thinks he can "bridge the divide" between what people want and what lobbyists are paying him for.

Nothing good will happen unless we push hard.

RonF said...

Obama is an empty suit with an even emptier resume.

Anonymous is right. Take a look at Obama's voting record. Include his State Senatorial record in Illinois (~80% of his total public life). Nothing in there says change. He sounds good, but votes "present" when something controversial comes up. The Illinois General Assembly is run by the 4 legislative leaders (minority and majority party leaders in each house), the heads of the two parties who control who gets slated and who gets re-election money and a non-entity to run against vs. real opposition. People who are change agents don't last 4 terms there. Obama has a record of endorsing machine candidates and ignoring "progressive" candidates. Look it up yourself.

John Lamb said...

I discovered I am a "values voter" when I explained to my daughter why I support Obama:

http://www.hispanicnashville.com/2008/02/why-i-support-barack-obama.html

Joe 32 said...

The hatred and venom spewed towards the Clintons, by most of Obama's supporters, shows me that Obama's movement to inspire a new direction is a farce.


El odio y el veneno vomitado hacia el Clintons, por la mayor parte de los partidarios de Obama, me muestran que el movimiento de Obama para inspirar una nueva dirección es una farsa.

Anonymous said...

Its always good to hear expressions of hope. That is the pillar of strength of any immigrant. I like to feel hopeful but I am concerned that he doesn't see us- Latinos- in his hope-full country. He codes everything from white to black and black to white. Although we may think that Yes we can, was directed to us, it wasn't. Maybe it was at best an afterthought.
And Hillary makes me wonder as well. She can't even say Si Se Puede...saying Pueda instead. And this after decades of hearing Dolores Huerta, a staunch Clintonista.
What I really don't get is how people can wonder between McCain and Obama?
MCCain may be a nice guy, and we always looove nice, but his policies are pretty backwards, keeping us in IRAQ for 100 years???? And when I say us, I do mean us.
I heard that tomorrow night there will be all night coverage in a network named V-me,( www.vmetv.com if your interested) all in Spanish. I never heard of it before, but it has an interesting website and partnered with Spanish newspapers. I think I will tune off the English coverage for once and see what folks that can really speak español have to say about all these issues.
This is my first post with you.

raulg251 said...

I wasn't clear on who to vote for until I heard H. Clinton showed her true colors. And went along with the republican
right to say that immigrants are taking job from Blacks.At the last debate. That is just wrong and stupid.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last post, I am surprised with the "Latino" vote. Hillary lost my vote when she stated that illegal’s are taking American’s jobs. Obama clearly understands that all you have to do is get up off your bottom and stop making excuses. Clinton her state New York, how is it possible that a "Latina" 24 years of age, healthy, dressed well, fake coach bag on her arm, one child and she is on TV suing a landlord for $1000.00 dollars. She pays $50.00 dollars a month for rent with the help of section 8, when the rent is 950.00! And her baby daddy is living with her. Unbelievable. That's Clinton state. Then in Missouri where I work, a Mexican that cannot speak English, complaining to me that he only gets so much money from the government and can't pay his rent because he gave his debit card number to dish network and they withdrew 500 out of his account. Why in the world is he even getting any support from the government? Obama wants to help immigrants. His plan to make sure that when immigrants do come over they are supporting themselves and won't have to depend on food stamps. And you guys are going on and on about what he didn't say, Well please enlighten me what did Hillary say, better yet do that would make me want to jump on her band wagon. Because as far as I can tell Obama is for what is right. This nation is falling apart and getting lazier. My grandfather came here from Mexico with 9 children, paid taxes and never asked for a hand out. Obama is telling Latinos I will help you with that dream and telling “his people” this is what you should be doing to achieve that dream. He’s an American like me, like you, a Democratic American. I only hope that “Latino” Americans come to realize that on their own by educating themselves and not reading or listening to propaganda. You want me to tell my children well girls he never did clearly say in Spanish “si se puede” so I’ll vote for Clinton. No no I’ll vote for McCain and make sure our soldier stays in Iraq to keep his eyes on that oil. And remind me one more time, what did Hillary do to help with all the illegals that are now in the states, what did she do to help them become legal? Or better yet what did her husband do? No your right, her husband won’t have any influence on what she does in the White House, because she said so.