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Youth, Not Race Distinguishes Obama

By Ruben Navarrette

As someone who could become the first African-American president, Barack Obama can't help but make history -- even the unwelcome kind.

The Illinois senator is now under the protection of the Secret Service, an unusual step this early in a campaign. Pundits insist that this development is both depressing and reassuring -- depressing that Obama needs a Secret Service detail because someone out there might be moved to violence by the thought of a black man being elected president, but reassuring that he's getting protection.

Personally, I think it's more of a distraction. It serves to reinforce the idea that the dominant characteristic that defines Obama and his candidacy is race -- when really it's youth.

You wouldn't know it from those lame stories early on about how Obama wasn't "black enough" or how African-American voters actually preferred Sen. Hillary Clinton.

We've had other African-Americans run for president. What makes Obama a trailblazer is that the 45-year-old is the first member of the post-baby boom generation to seek the White House. The candidate himself set the template when, in announcing his candidacy in February, he talked about how Americans have long met the challenge of changing their country for the better. "Today," he said, "we are called once more -- and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

Obama hit that chord again last month in laying out his foreign policy views in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Noting that there have always been generations of young people serving as "ambassadors for peace in countries all over the world," the candidate declared that "it's our moment to lead -- our generation's time to tell another great American story."

But if Obama is correct and this really is his generation's moment, doesn't that mean that the moment is ending for the baby boomers -- you know, the generation that said it would never get old, that it would never leave the stage, that it would redefine retirement, etc? Boomers must realize that if Obama is elected, it could make it less likely that one of them will ever again be elected president. From that point on, the question will be whether to elect a Democratic Generation X'er or a Republican Generation X'er. But either way, chances are that the candidates of the future will be of that generation.

At least that's been the pattern. When John Kennedy became the first member of the World War II generation elected in 1960, and Bill Clinton the first baby boomer elected in 1992, the curtain effectively dropped for the preceding generation.

Don't expect the boomers to go quietly. We've heard a lot from the media about how Obama doesn't have the "experience" to be president. Every time you hear that refrain, think about what they're really trying to say -- that he's too young, in the same way that Kennedy and Clinton were taken lightly by their elders.

An Obama presidency would be a refreshing change and would almost certainly benefit from the fact that the candidate is not burdened by what he calls the "psychodrama of the baby boom generation" with its endless feuds, grudges and hard feelings dating back to the conflicts of the 1960s. If nothing else, it'll be a nice change -- from this point forward -- not to hear every foreign policy challenge described as "another Vietnam."

OK, we get it. That war went a long way toward defining the baby boomers. But that doesn't mean it has to define our nation's foreign policy for the next century. It's time to bury those ghosts.

Fifty years from now, people will look back and they won't believe that during the 2004 presidential election -- the first since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- the debate in America wasn't really over the location of Osama bin Laden but over whether John Kerry was ever in Cambodia or whether George W. Bush spent the requisite amount of time in Alabama to maintain his status as a member of the Air National Guard. You would have thought we could have found something more urgent to focus on -- like how best to combat the threat of global terrorism.

We need a new national mindset, and step one is to usher in a new generation of leaders. One waits in the wings.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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