Fineman: Obama and the Politics of Race

I'll never forget a frigid morning in Springfield: Sen. Barack Obama, elegantly Lincolnesque in a long wool coat, launching his presidential candidacy in the shadow of the old Illinois State Capitol. The echoes of history were almost deafening—not just of Abraham Lincoln, who, like Obama, had been a legislator there, but of the argument over slavery and race that Lincoln had joined there.

On that sunny February day in 2007, Obama seemed to radiate uplift and glorious possibility. He was making a statement: that his candidacy would be the exclamation point at the end of our four-century-long argument over the role of African-Americans in our society. By electing a mixed-race man of evident brilliance, moderate mien and welcoming smile, we would finally cease seeing each other through color-coded eyes.

Well, that argument did not end. He and we were naive to think it would. In our country, uniquely based on and blessed by the idea of individual freedom, the most profound argument always this: who is fully a person in the eyes of our society and law? The Constitution enshrines and protects "persons." But who is one and, just as important, who isn't?

In some ways, as the 2008 presidential campaign shows—and the racially lopsided West Virginia results from Tuesday night remind us—we have yet to fully answer the questions.

A century and a half ago, the American Argument over personhood sparked one of the bloodiest disputes any nation has ever had with itself: our Civil War. But the enduring debate also spawned tremendous social progress and constitutional changes, not just for blacks but for women, gays, lesbians and others. The phrase "We the People" has a far broader meaning than our white male Christian Founders imagined.

But now, in the presidential campaign of 2008, the old argument engenders fresh ones. Is Obama's campaign erasing racial consciousness, or raising it? Are voters willing to see a black man not only as an equal, but as commander in chief? If Obama wins, will we finally and forever reach the sunny uplands of tolerance? If he loses, does that mean we are hopelessly mired in kind of racist thinking that still denies full personhood to individuals for no other reason than skin color?

Let me offer some tentative answers to at least the first question.

Far from eliminating racial thinking from politics, the Obama campaign has inevitably drawn attention to the subject—and, looking back, I guess we should have known that it could hardly have done otherwise. In South Carolina (appropriately enough, since that is where the Civil War began) the Democratic campaign divided itself along racial lines, and it has remained that way.

From Iowa onward, Obama has done well among younger, college-educated and upscale white voters. But the heart of his coalition and calculus is the unprecedented registration and turnout of black voters. Sen. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has increasingly retreated into a redoubt of lower-income and older white voters and, in many states, is also relying on an appeal to Hispanic voters that has a racial component to it.

Media analysis, aided (if that is the right word) by exit polls, is more race-conscious (or obsessed) than ever. There are times on television when I find myself blanching at the frankly race-based nature of the discussion. It doesn't seem like progress.

Who made the campaign this way? We are all at fault, especially voters who are admitting that race matters. Those voters overwhelmingly have gone for Hillary Clinton, and while there may be many reasons (Her gas-tax holiday? Her health-care proposal?), it's hard to escape the conclusion that many have done so simply because Obama is black.

The Clintons share the blame. Bill Clinton should never have dismissed Obama's victory in South Carolina as a race-based one, just like Jesse Jackson's. (Even though it was in good measure just that the Clintons should have had the wisdom not to say so. Neither should their main argument to superdelegates be that Obama can't get enough white voters to win in the fall. First, that may not be true—especially if Hillary gets out there to help him. And, while it might seem unfair, the Clintons need to have a better reason. They sound too much like they are fanning the prejudice they claim to deplore and that, indeed, they worked throughout their lives to oppose.

But Obama and his campaign are not blameless. His message from the start was race-aware, if not race-based. He was saying: in part because I am in fact an African-American, I have a capacity for leadership in 21st century America that others do not.

And the primary schedule led him to more explicit appeals as a black candidate per se—the very our-kind approach he supposedly had eschewed.

After beginning his campaign with a stunning statement of cross-racial appeal—his big win in Iowa--Obama took New Hampshire too lightly, and was blindsided on his victory lap by the wobbly front runner, Senator Clinton. Had he knocked her out in New Hampshire, he perhaps could have run a different kind of campaign. But he desperately needed a big win in South Carolina, and to get it he had to fight the Clinton family's deep ties in the African-American community nationwide.

And so Obama focused heavily on the black vote, first in South Carolina, then everywhere, not to the exclusion of other constituencies, but to perhaps a greater degree than he might otherwise have been required to do. With the help of Oprah Winfrey and others—and the mixed blessing of his wife, Michelle, declaring that she would finally feel proud to be an American—Obama worked it big time.

The bottom line in South Carolina was a racially polarized result that has continued to this day. Obama wins blacks by unprecedented numbers, and, in most states, college-educated and younger whites. Hillary wins less-educated and less-affluent whites, and the lion's share of Hispanic voters. (One reason she is staying in the race: the Puerto Rico primary.)

The legacy of South Carolina remains intact. South Carolina also was the place in which Obama's campaign began crying foul over real or imagined racial slights. It worked in many ways, increasing black voter solidarity and goading Bill Clinton into serial fits of purple rage. Sometimes complaining about others who play the "race card" can itself be a form of playing the race card.

The Obama campaign may be right: that raising the profile of this issue is the way to finally defeat it. America has come a long way, and perhaps younger voters will express their impatience with racial old-think by voting for Obama in the fall as an expression of faith in the future.

We'll see. In this campaign, the new argument over race and personhood hasn't ended. It's just begun.