The Blacking of Obama

January 27, 2008 on 4:28 pm

In his presidential candidacy, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has been the fresh face of optimism and hope that our quadrennial national campaigns often occasion. And after Iowa, a great number of people in this country, especially Democrats and Independents, appeared to be more than comfortable with the thought that this man might be president. And this, it would seem, was where his troubles began.

In analyzing Sen. Obama’s upset loss in New Hampshire, pundits were quick to cite the Bradley Rule — i.e., poll respondents saying they leaned toward Tom Bradley, an African American, prior to his 1980 run for Governor of California but, when they got in the privacy of voting booth, didn’t. But that’s not where Obama’s troubles started. No. They started with the Clinton Rule:  We win. And while the Clintons have supported and nurtured the African American community to the point of Bill’s being dubbed the first “Black President,” their devotion does not extend to an African American stepping in line ahead of them for the presidency.

In a high irony of American politics, race has become a wedge issue between two Democratic presidential aspirants. Unique in our history of minority candidates, Sen. Obama was able to pack 10,000 plus voters in convention centers and  sports complexes in Iowa (need I say White?) and bring them to their feet, some even to tears. In my experience – both personal and observational – he was the first African American candidate for national office who had become so associated with a perspective on government and an enthusiasm to pursue it that race had been transcended. He wasn’t Black; he was young. He wasn’t African American; he was inspiring.

Sen. Obama had not built his campaign on an African American base. Indeed, his candidacy was not welcomed by Black political leaders. Moreover, many African Americans seemed reluctant to claim him. Iowa changed all that. While political leaders in the African American community were still hesitant, poll respondents in Black America began rallying to him. And not because he had lost to Sen. Clinton, but because he appeared to have a genuine shot at winning; i.e., he was for real. Unavoidably, as his strength among Black Americans grew, he was regarded increasingly an African American candidate. However, it was the clashes with the Clinton campaign that amplified this perception to the point of an identity.

It’s always hard to say who threw the first mud ball. When it comes to who’s lying about one point or another, however, we have the tapes. I have heard President Clinton lie about Obama’s comments on Ronald Reagan. I have seen an ad produced and placed by the Clinton campaign that repeats this lie. Never mind that the ad was withdrawn. It was done and shown, and it was a lie. Acrimony in politics often drives the contestants to their base. The great irony here is that the impact of this acrimony is to incline many to view Sen. Obama as from a base he was not claiming.

Irony raised to tragedy would be for Sen. Obama’s victory in South Carolina to so confirm him as the African American Candidate as to cripple his quest. He is clearly so much more than a person of a political base. By accounts of those who have seen him (I have not), Obama is a highly intelligent, inspirational politician with a deep commitment to the core operational tenets of a vibrant democracy – a willingness to listen and a commitment to action.

Should Sen. Obama’s candidacy be crippled buy a win in South Carolina, much angst and regret will eventuate. While groupings and identities are inevitable in a democracy such as ours, it is the manner in which this process is engaged that is the surest test of the honor and integrity of those in the contest. When such engagement is of questionable means and intent, as events here suggest, it is on us, the electorate, to measure the character and worthiness of those who promote and profit from such engagement. 

And it is here that the Independent must rise above the fray, exactly because it is this side of politics that he or she so frequently abhors. Our place, indeed our trust, is to note such behavior and to weigh it heavily in our decision as to for whom we each cast our vote. Forgive and explain as you might, but be careful not to forget. 


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