The night Barack Obama is expected to accept the Democratic nomination will be Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King had a dream, and Barack Obama is part of its fulfillment.
We live in a more just and open country than we did 45 years ago, a country where an African-American may be elected president. That doesn't mean the country is perfectly just, or that we live in a new, post-racial era. But concerns about race in this election are overstated.
Do many rural or working-class people have questions about Obama? Sure. But these are less about race than about culture. Obama has not lived their lives.
That's OK. In the weeks and months ahead, he just needs to show that he respects them and understands the issues that matter to them—that he can make their lives better. Obama has run a first-rate primary campaign, energizing countless new voters. Now he's got to get off the big stage more often and meet with people where they work, play and pray. That means getting out to schools and factories, coffee shops, fairgrounds and houses of worship. He needs to earn their trust.
That lesson was driven home for me during my run for Senate in 2006, at a little bar-restaurant called the Lil' Rebel in Jackson, Tenn. I'd been to church, and during a morning prayer, Pastor Nathaniel Bond held my hands. "There are more Davids than Goliaths, and more answers than there are problems," he said. Later that day, as I was driving past the Lil' Rebel for the second time, heading out of town, I decided that I had heard those words for a reason. We turned the car around and pulled in. I wasn't scared, but my aide— a white guy—was slightly nervous. He told me that "if things don't go right, we'll just go."
When I walked in, the people couldn't have been nicer. They let us put bumper stickers on their vehicles—some next to Confederate flags and BUSH '04 STICKERS. They told me about another patron who was a big fan, and how upset he'd be that he had missed me. Well, about a week later, that guy approached me at a campaign event. "You should stop at every little place," he said. "You'll be surprised." I only regret the clock ran out on me before I could do more of that.
Obama has lots of time. He doesn't need to ride rodeo, or hunt if he doesn't like hunting. People know that the candidates running for president don't live just the way they live. But they want to know that they're understood, and that their daily struggles are respected. Obama should mingle. He should go to the states where he lost big: walk across Kentucky and West Virginia. He should take half a day and work as a fireman, a waiter, a mechanic.
He can't shy away from embarrassing himself. When Obama went bowling and shot a 37 (for seven frames, with the help of some small children), he should have seen that as an opportunity. He could have returned to the same bowling alley the next day to show how determined he was to improve. "I told you I'd come back," he could have said with a smile. "We're all going to come back and improve. We just need to address our challenges honestly and head on."
No Democrat has won a majority of the working-class white vote since LBJ in 1964. That's partly because some have been smeared as elitists. But Barack Obama is no elitist. He was raised by his mother and grandparents. Nothing was spoon-fed to him; he had to work, and he took advantage of educational opportunities. More than that, he used what he learned to help working-class people. He has to tell that story, an authentic American story that hardworking people can relate to. He just needs to get out there and meet them.