The mission of Team Obama at the Democratic National Convention was threefold: to “introduce” the candidate and his running mate to the country; to project party unity in the aftermath of the bruising primary battle between Sen. Barak Obama and rival Sen. Hillary Clinton; and to convince moderates and independents that voting for Sen. John McCain is essentially a vote for President George W. Bush.
The Democrats solidly accomplished two out of three. Not quite pulling off that third feat will dog Obama going into what will undoubtedly be a relentless Republican National Convention the week of Sept. 1 in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
The agenda the night of Aug. 25 focused on family. The character study of Mr. and Mrs. Obama as the passionate, hard-working, heads of a young family was effective. Vice president nominee Joseph Biden was accurately portrayed as a proud family man, likeable and in a rolled-up sleeves kind of way, a tough statesman who could be from the next town over. This presentation targeted voters who remain uncertain about Obama, whose rise to the top of the ticket really began on the same stage just four years ago at the 2004 DNC in Boston.
Although it was a heartening moment during which Americans could peek into the lives of both members of the Democratic ticket, it was also a tacit attack on the right-wing’s slippery grasp on “family values.” Deep roots, solid marriages and hard working children speak for themselves. Strong family values need not be categorized, such as by GOP strategists, within a “winning” formula. They just need to exist. To court voters in Indian country, who may just decide November’s election, both parties need to demonstrate how their values translate into policy.
The unification task, well choreographed and centered on passionate endorsements from both Clintons came off without a hitch. It was an important moment for American Indian delegates, many of whom campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton for nearly two years. Where leadership by Native women is a birthright, Mrs. Clinton found allies for her quest for universal health care and rural economic development.
Partly because of her candidacy, countless American Indian men and women became politically active and helped dispel the myth of the non-voting, invisible Indian. They now represent critical voting blocs in swing states that include much of Indian country in the West – North Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Nevada. As both campaigns court these states, it is imperative that Indian voter registration rates improve.
The third objective – appealing to moderate and independent voters suffering from Bush fatigue – barely registered. Polls show these voters have not necessarily embraced Obama, or denounced McCain as “four more years of the same.” Nearly 80 percent of voters think the country is heading in the wrong direction; but despite media saturation during the DNC, the candidates run virtually even.
With just 10 weeks to go until Nov. 4, Team Obama chose not to focus on the myriad issues plaguing the United States today. Still, the Democrats’ rally wasn’t entirely without reminders of the disastrous results of the Bush presidency: a squandered federal surplus, industrial contribution to global warming, and the rise of terrorism. We would add: unnecessary war, torture, domestic surveillance and the embarrassment of being one of only four nations to vote “no” to adopt the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A strong domestic agenda, including details regarding a promised cabinet position for Indian Affairs, should provide substance for Obama’s post-convention campaign. Both Obama and McCain must further address federal Indian policy if they hope to bring critical Indian voters into the fold.
It is important to note that Obama accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a significant moment in American history. But despite the dramatic victories of the American civil rights movement, the United States cannot claim moral authority as long as indigenous peoples in America suffer the highest rates of poverty and suicide.
With many western states with large Indian populations in play for both parties, the images and achievements of Native peoples should continue to come to the forefront during this highest of American political seasons. American Indian participation during both conventions will signal to Indian country whether the office of the president is moving toward substantive inclusion of America’s diversity, or not.