BOSTON — Maybe it wasn’t such a great Christmas gift after all. The baseball caps, emblazoned with the last day of the Bush presidency — Jan. 19, 2009 — seemed to offer my favorite Democratic couple a light at the end of the tunnel. But sometimes it’s easier to see the tunnel than the light.

Nevertheless, January is about to mark the earliest opening for any presidential campaign in memory. So allow me to end the old year and begin the new by taking a look at the question dominating the news magazines and talk shows: Is America ready for a president who isn’t a white male?

The only Democrats who so far have actually announced their candidacies are indeed white and male, from Tom Vilsack to John Edwards. But the sexier and racier question dominating the early chatter is the possible mano-a-womano, black-and-white matchup that could be offered with Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Hussein Obama atop the national ticket.

Ready? Political readiness is not exactly like reading readiness. For generations, strategists and psychologists have posed the same chicken-and-egg riddle for social change. Do you need a change in attitudes before you can succeed in changing real life? Or does a change in reality produce a change in attitudes?

The answer is, of course, yes.

Having lived through enormous change, having seen people resist change, adjust and then protect and promote one new “status quo” after another, I think we operate with too much fear about “readiness” and too much pessimism about backlash.

I sometimes think we have two very different national attitudes toward the pace of technological change and the pace of political change. It’s as if we were all eager, early adopters when it comes to iPods, and late adopters when it comes to presidents.

As we turn to 2007 and 2008, I don’t think we have to be cockeyed optimists to believe that Americans can get beyond seeing “a female” and “a black” to seeing a candidate.

Consider Massachusetts, where a Mormon Republican white man is being followed into the governor’s office by an African-American Democratic man who defeated a white Republican woman? Was Massachusetts “ready” for “a” Mormon before Mitt Romney? Was it ready for “an” African-American before Deval Patrick?

Let’s take the briefest stock of the individual strengths and weaknesses of the two way-too-early frontrunners in the Democratic Party. There is no doubt that Democrats have developed a crush on Obama, a man of thoughtful charm, relaxed intelligence and ineffable authenticity. The reservations against him are that he’s unknown, untested and “young.” (Memo to the baby-boomer media dubbing him as young: No, you were not young at 45.)

Whether that crush becomes a commitment depends on how his “authenticity” survives delivering a stump speech 14 times a day under a Jon Stewart watchdog. And how resilient he is after the inevitable YouTube moment.

As for Hillary? If Barack is the new boy on the block, Hillary is the smarter, sadder-but-wiser gal. For the first time in history, a female candidate is the most experienced, the most ready-on-Day-One option for the Oval Office.

Yet the reservations about her have to do with her baggage, her husband and her haters. Hillary’s success will depend perversely on whether she can convince those Democrats who would vote for her that others will too. Her election depends on being seen as “electable.”

I don’t dismiss racism and sexism in these equations. I watched the campaign ads against Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee. I heard Rahm Emanuel ask, “What the f— happened to my women?” when only three of 17 Democratic women candidates challenging Republicans for congressional seats won. But Clinton and Obama are individuals with very personal stories. Not class actions.

In Newsweek, 93 percent of Americans said they would vote for an African-American for president but only 56 percent believed that the country was ready for one. Similarly, 86 percent said they would vote for a woman but only 55 percent believed the country was ready for one.

Traditionally, if cynically, we assume that the lower figure is the one that matters, the real one. But maybe that gap between us and them — open-minded us and close-minded them — doesn’t grow out of an inflated view of ourselves but a deflated view of our country.

Is the country ready? Almost all Americans believe or want to believe that they would vote for a president without prejudice. That’s either an agent for change or an indicator of change. If we believe we vote for the person, not the race or the gender, maybe we will. 2007, 2008. Ready — or not — here we go.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)

(c) 2006 Washington Post Writers Group

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