Campaign 2008: Is U.S. Ready for Woman President?

It felt like the Twilight Zone in New Hampshire. The calendar still read 2006, but every-thing about the surging crowd of 1,500 pumped-up Democrats and 160 ravenous political reporters screamed 2008. Here was Barack Obama, less than two years into his Senate term, making his first-ever trip to the state in mid-December, and his sold-out performance before a tumultuous crowd impressed even the most hardened political operatives--though Conan O'Brien joked it was just because New Hampshire had never seen an African-American before.

For decades, the joke there has been that no presidential wanna-be can win support in the fabled primary without meeting each voter one-on-one in his living room. But the 45-year-old Obama, some-times described as "post-racial," was in a category of his own. As his team began to peel away longtime Bill Clinton supporters--former Commerce secretary Bill Daley is strongly onboard and will likely be a senior adviser--the Illinois senator's presidential rollout was working so well in New Hampshire that it raised concerns he could be peaking too soon. The mania, his aides know, cannot be sustained at this level when the real scrutiny begins.

Full of praise for Hillary Clinton, Obama handled himself with his usual offhand baritone cool. He explained that the hype has "less to do with me, more to do with you." His curious audience, he noted, was simply saying, "We are looking for something different--we want something new."

The question is, how new? For 220 years, Americans have elected only white male Christians with no hint of ethnicity to the White House. Even Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy seemed like a WASP to most people. By the time of Rep. Shirley Chisholm's brief run in 1972, then Jesse Jackson's in 1984 and 1988, the country was comfortable with barrier-breaking on the campaign trail, but not yet serious about electing someone truly different.

No one knows yet whether we are serious now, and we won't find out for sure unless it happens. But the record of white males in high places has not exactly been stellar of late, and voters might be in the mood to try something historic and possibly redemptive. A black president in a country that fought a civil war over race might even prove cathartic. And a woman president would show the rest of the world that the United States is not a sexist nation. Whatever happens, the process feels uplifting. If neither Clinton nor Obama wins, it won't necessarily prove the United States is closed-minded. Their failure would likely be the product of their own shortcomings--or the emergence of one of the several white (and one Hispanic) male Democrats who still have a shot at their party's nomination. Early primary states are so hard-wired for upsets that many Democrats could find themselves circling back to the pale males.

It's impossible to separate the abstract question of whether America is ready for a woman or a black from the concrete matter of whether we're ready for Hillary or Barack. Historically, the odds favor a woman over an African- American; psychologically and generationally, they may favor Obama over Clinton. Both are now expected to launch their campaigns early in the new year, which has created a level of political novelty and intrigue that goes beyond gender and race. "People don't view her first as a woman--they view her as a Clinton," says one of Bill Clinton's longtime advisers, who did not wish to be quoted assessing her candidacy. "And he looks like he may have the secret formula to unlock partisanship--a mixture that's broader than race."

First, they have to run the gauntlet. Hillary's big problem might be less her sex than her husband's--the risk that despite a powerful nostalgia for his intelligence and competence, Bill Clinton's sexual history and its myriad complications for her public persona will somehow intrude in ways that feel very yesterday. Will fatigue with the less attractive side of the Clinton years--the soap opera, sinning and self-absorption--resurface? Hard-core Hillary haters of both genders aren't going away.

Obama hasn't yet brought out the haters. "He's scarier than she is because nobody says a bad word about him," says a former senior aide to President Bush who doesn't want to be quoted speculating about Democrats. But that's partly because he's so untested. Obama's problem may be less that he's black than that he's green--the least battle-hardened major candidate in modern memory; "Obambi," as one Chicago columnist called him. Although lack of experience usually counts in politics only if it leads to serious error, his thin record could offer a handy excuse to those who consider President Barack Hussein Obama too exotic for their tastes. On the other hand, under what might be called the "dog years" theory of politics, a year of intense campaigning before the primaries might make the country feel as if it had known him for seven.

Theodore Sorensen, JFK's adviser and speechwriter, says, "He [Obama] reminds me in many ways of Kennedy in 1960. The pundits said he was Catholic and too young and inexperienced and wasn't a member of the party's inner circle. They forgot that the nomination wasn't decided in Washington but out in the field."

Polling on women and blacks in leadership suggests sharply improved prospects for both, though it's impossible to say how much respondents lie or are affected by their feelings about specific candidates. According to a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 86 percent of registered voters would vote for a qualified woman candidate for president if their party nominated one, and 93 percent say the same for a qualified African-American. These are much higher numbers than those of a generation ago.

But when asked about other people--whether "America is ready to elect a woman president"--only 55 percent say yes, with 7 percent fewer women than men answering in the affirmative. For an African-American presidential candidate, 56 percent of voters say America is ready, with more blacks than whites claiming not. This corresponds to anecdotal evidence of women's being among the most skeptical of Hillary's prospects and blacks unconvinced that Obama can go the distance. Their personal experience with obstacles leads them to lengthen the odds. The difference, which might favor Obama, is that women do not vote in disproportionate numbers for women candidates, while blacks tend to cast their vote for blacks, as long as they're viable Democrats.

In the abstract, the country seems disposed to elect a woman before an African-American. Women first won the constitutional right to vote in 1920, half a century after blacks (theoretically) received the franchise, but women have progressed further. In 1974, Ella Grasso of Connecticut became the first woman elected governor without having been the spouse or widow of one. The United States, where 51 percent of the population is female, now includes 9 women governors, 71 women House members and a record 16 women out of 100 in the Senate. Beginning in Sri Lanka in 1960, more than 40 nations have chosen women as heads of state (usually through the parliamentary system)--most recently in Chile, macho land of Pinochet, where voters in 2006 comfortably elected Michelle Bachelet as president.

By contrast, African-Americans represent only 13 percent of the American population, and minorities rarely serve as heads of state in any country. Only two blacks--Douglas Wilder of Virginia and, this year, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts--have been elected governor since Reconstruction, and only three have been sent to the Senate--Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and now Obama.

The benign interpretation of this disappointing history is that blacks are only one generation removed from the civil-rights movement. During that time, the argument goes, the most talented African-Americans gravitated more to business than politics, and those who did seek public office generally lacked the money to run statewide (the same problem held women back for many years). Black politicians concentrated instead on "majority-minority" House districts that have helped expand the Congressional Black Caucus to 43 members today.

While no analysts say electing a woman president is impossible, some still make that case about a black candidate. They suggest discarding analogies to the broad appeal of Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods: "There's a willingness to be entertained by African-Americans, but to be governed by them is a completely different story," says Lawrence Otis Graham, an African-American author. "White men have socialized and worked under women, but much more rarely under blacks. Whatever they say, when they go in the polling place, they won't go for it." Focus groups sponsored by Wilder during his abortive 1992 presidential campaign found that such hidden racial feelings continued to play a big role.

On the other hand, the population of racist voters is shrinking fast, for both actuarial and cultural reasons. During his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama was greeted by an enthusiastic white crowd in Cairo, Ill., the site of ongoing Ku Klux Klan violence as late as the 1970s. His top adviser, David Axelrod, recalls being stunned on the night of Obama's primary victory to find he had beaten several white candidates in an all-white Chicago ward that had nearly rioted over Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.

The case for Obama's electability is strengthened by the example of Colin Powell, who might well have won had he run in 1996. (Powell declined partly in deference to family fears for his personal safety. Obama's family shares those concerns, and he will add a security detail if he runs. Clinton, as a former First Lady, gets Secret Service protection.) Unlike Powell, Obama has no military service to deepen his connection to core American values. But Powell and Obama share an immigrant heritage quite different from the descendants of Southern plantation slaves and a conviction, as Obama writes in his best-selling "The Audacity of Hope," that "rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America." By lifting that guilt, Obama, like Powell, has a way of making whites feel better about themselves because they like him. It's the politics of personal validation: voting as an act of self-esteem.

This taps right into the American Dream. The critic Stanley Crouch argued in a recent column titled "Not Black Like Me" that Obama--raised in Hawaii as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas (both academics, both now dead)--is more representative of the uplifting immigrant experience than the grim African-American one: "He will have come into the White House through a side door--which might, at this point, be the only one that's open."

The same could be said for Hillary, who would become the first president to reach the White House at least partly through marriage. The marriage factor is less of a handicap than it might have been a few years ago, before she carved out her own solid reputation and the Bush crowd suffered such reversals of fortune. The willingness of so many voters to support Hillary because they admire her husband and think he would guide her is old-fashioned--even sexist--but still a powerful asset. Now Clinton partisans are happy to encourage the idea that a Hillary presidency would constitute a third term for Bill.

Even so, people remain uneasy about women in power. "A pollster once told me this issue doesn't need a pollster, it needs a shrink," says Melanne Verveer, a longtime Hillary friend and former chief of staff. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, an African-American who committed to Hillary a year ago (but admits she would now be torn between her and Obama if she hadn't), worries about her candidate. "Women are harder on women," she says. "They demand a level of perfection they often do not from male candidates." Another African-American woman in Congress, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending the Clintons, says, "If her base is black women, it vanishes down to zero" if Obama gets in. The fact that Obama is married to an African-American woman (Michelle Obama, a vice president of the University of Chicago Hospitals) is critically important to this constituency.

The midterms were a mixed bag for women candidates. With the Democrats taking control in January, Rep. Nancy Pelosi will become the first woman Speaker of the House, making her second in line for the presidency. Two more women were elected to the Senate, and five women governors were re-elected. But on an otherwise celebratory election night, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, leader of Democratic efforts to take back the House, wailed, "What the f--- happened to my women?" Only three of 17 women challengers won, a much worse showing than for male candidates trying to win GOP seats.

No one has offered a full explanation, though the best theory is that women were more vulnerable than men to Republican attack ads claiming they coddled illegal aliens with taxpayer-supported benefits. It's apparently easier to make women candidates look soft, and there's not much penalty for beating up on them. "Too often when a woman runs, it's about being man enough for the job--and hair, hemline and husband," says Marie Wilson, director of a program to advance women candidates called the White House Project. Wilson says voters associate men with power and authority: "A female Obama would be questioned a great deal more about stepping forward with his level of experience."

Hillary's now-consistent hair and hemline won't be issues; her muscular national-security approach and her famous husband will. While Obama as an Illinois state senator opposed the Iraq invasion in 2002 as a "dumb war," she voted in favor of the resolution giving President Bush the authority he sought. Unlike John Edwards and Sen. Chris Dodd, she has not said her vote was a mistake. Instead, Hillary has clung to a nuanced view that she was voting to get the United Nations inspectors back into Iraq. "Like it or not, I guarantee you that's her heartfelt position," says former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Hillary supporter. Democratic primary voters won't like it, an advantage for Obama (and for Wesley Clark, the only other candidate who opposed the war). When you lack experience, it helps to have been right on the biggest issue of the day.

And what about Bill? The 42nd president is clearly a major plus for Hillary as long as he does nothing to embarrass his wife. One close friend of the family, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons, says the two now have a "loving marriage" and that his intense desire to see Hillary as president is helping him fight his longstanding "addiction": "He so wants her to get recognized for her fabulousness that he could live without a lot of things you wouldn't think he could live without."

But the voters' fear of an unwelcome blast from the past remains. "It's a subliminal thing," says another friend, also insisting that he not be named. "People don't want to be dragged back into their marriage when we're in a major crisis. People believe the right wing is loading up the cannons in anticipation, and even if what they have is not true, it will be printed, rebutted and will distract."

The former president will campaign separately from his wife across the country, almost as if he's a vice presidential candidate. This will multiply their impact, but it also avoids the direct side-by-side comparison that hurts Hillary, as it did when both spoke at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Friends predict she will take speaking lessons (as he did some years ago) so that her speeches are less like policy-wonk laundry lists. They also believe she needs to show her sense of humor more in public, but in a way that's self-deprecating, not the sometimes sarcastic wit she wields in private.

It's hard to assess the strength of anti-Hillary sentiment in the country. Her advisers point to her huge re-election victory in New York, where she crushed her Palookaville opponent among independents and even scored well with Republicans, sweeping all but four counties. The national polls sponsored by "Hillaryland" (as her universe is known) are similarly encouraging. But the gap between what voters say they would do and how they think their neighbors would react raises suspicions. "It makes me think these polls are phony as hell," says former representative Pat Schroeder, who abandoned a possible presidential campaign in 1988. "There's a hard core out there who won't vote for a woman."

Or perhaps just not for Hillary. A recent Marist Poll showed that 47 percent of respondents nationwide "definitely will not consider" voting for her, a percentage that alarms some former aides to President Clinton. Those numbers will need to change for Democratic primary voters--now comfortable with assessing electability--to move her way.

A sobering message for Obama is the example of Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in the 2006 midterms. Ford ran a strong campaign for the Senate, but he lost by three points to Republican Bob Corker. The GOP sponsored an ad featuring a blonde cooing, "Call me, Harold," in reference to Ford's appearance at a Super Bowl party for Playboy. Ford's bachelorhood gave the Republicans the opening they needed to push age-old racist fears of miscegenation, but if that commercial hadn't worked, they would likely have found something else with racial overtones. (The producer of the ad now works for John McCain.)

As it was, a second, lesser-known attack ad was more troubling to Ford and could be used someday against Obama, too. It showed Ford in a church as the narrator tags Ford as a hypocrite on religious values. Then there was Ford's decision to ambush Corker in a parking lot. It may be that black candidates seeking white votes have less room than other politicians to go on the attack. That could leave Obama trapped between his positive tone and the need to be tough. If he loses his temper in the process, it might prove fatal politically. The margin for error for a rookie is small.

One piece of encouraging news from Tennessee is that the returns showed no signs of the "Bradley Effect," in which white voters tell pollsters they will vote for the black candidate, then go into the voting booth and choose someone else. (The phenomenon was named after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who in 1982 led in the final polls for governor of California but lost.) The final results in Tennessee actually showed Ford doing several points better than some election-eve polls suggested. "I don't know that a white Democrat would have done any better, and maybe even worse," Obama told NEWSWEEK. (Hillary declined to comment on the issues surrounding the prospect of a black or woman president.)

The electoral map might not be as daunting for Obama as it appears. Democratic pollster Joel Benenson points out that an African-American candidate on the ticket might make states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive for Democrats. Even Republican strategists concede that those who would vote against Obama purely on race are unlikely to vote Democratic anyway.

If he runs, Obama's real advantage may be in Southern primaries, where blacks now make up roughly half the voters. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the black South Carolinian whose support is important in that state's critical primary, told NEWSWEEK last week that he didn't think President Clinton's popularity would necessarily rub off on his wife. "Would my wife do as well as I did [running for office]? I don't think so," Clyburn says. "A lot of things can't transfer. You just can't pass that on." Obama plans to launch a huge voter-registration drive in 2007. He headed one in the Chicago area in 1992 that registered 100,000 new voters, mostly black.

Both campaigns would likely have ample funds for a protracted primary campaign. Hillary Clinton has $14.4 million on hand and a financial network in place to raise whatever it takes. And should Obama maintain his momentum, the money will almost certainly follow. "If Howard Dean raised $45 million on the Internet, that number is easily obtainable," says Bill Daley.

Obama's biggest challenge may be meeting expectations. Each time they have been raised--after his electrifying 2004 convention speech, upon his arrival in the Senate, with the publication of his book last fall--he has cleared the bar. But some Democrats are sure to be disappointed. Already, when he gives a policy-heavy, low-key speech, some in the audience--expecting convention-style oratory--leave underwhelmed.

Hillary is terrific at handling incoming artillery, but there may not be much--at least from Obama himself. His appeal is built at least partly around staying positive, a luxury he enjoyed in his 2004 Senate campaign, where he never had to go hard after his opponents. He beat several formidable white candidates in the Democratic primary, but the self-destruction of both the Illinois Democratic and the Republican front runners in sex scandals was a rare double gift. (Should Bill Clinton stray and blow up his wife's campaign, Obama could go 3-for-3 in that department.)

Obama insists that anyone who says Hillary is unelectable is wrong, though every time he makes this seemingly gracious remark--as he did recently in New Hampshire and New York-- he cleverly raises the doubts again. On the surface, both candidates will likely hold their fire and wage relatively clean campaigns. Below them, of course, their operatives will be jabbing away in the 24-hour war rooms that are now a permanent part of big-time politics.

Hillaryland is in a "how dare he?" frame of mind, insisting that the wet-behind-the-ears senator doesn't have the standing to crash her party. Her operatives whisper about an Obama land deal with a Chicago fixer who was later indicted in an unrelated matter. Obamanians reply that the nominating process should not be a coronation, and that, after Whitewater, the Clintons are in no position to flog real-estate flaps into scandals.

At first glance, Clinton looks tougher than Obama, a big advantage in a bruising campaign. Obama isn't weak, just a blank slate. But if the standard is ease with people, the self-described "skinny guy with the funny name" has the edge. "There's not a room he walks into where he's uncomfortable, which causes other people to react the same way," says Axelrod. Anyone reading his revealing first book, "Dreams From My Father," can tell that Obama spent many difficult hours as a young man figuring out who he is, and that now he seems to know.

The campaign will likely have an intra-boomer subplot. Born in 1961 at the end of the baby boom, Obama and his cohort were shaped by a more ironic and less ideological sensibility than those who came of age in the tumult of the '60s. We cannot know yet how their different life experiences would play out in the presidency; that's what campaigns are supposed to help reveal. But it's a safe bet that both would use their global star power to repair America's image abroad.

Until then, these two celebrity candidates might end up helping each other, expanding America's sense of possibility. If either manages to win the White House, or even come close, 2008 will be remembered as the year when the last of the republic's old barriers to entry came tumbling down in one big, exciting presidential election.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts