Obama: American Enough?

Some 50 delegates were reportedly poised to unite behind Barack Obama if he had won by even 1 point in Texas. He lost the popular vote by 100,000 ballots, and now we learn that 100,000 Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton, probably not because of some change in party allegiance but because they thought she would be the easier candidate to beat. This kind of strategic voting often backfires (think Ralph Nader). The Texas crossovers are winners. By helping to prolong the Democratic race, they can claim credit for weakening the eventual nominee, whoever it turns out to be.

Obama has had a terrible time since Hillary sprang back to life after winning the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4. The speech he delivered on race relations in Philadelphia was a valiant effort to address the story about his former pastor's inflammatory rhetoric. Having resisted for so long being typecast as the black candidate, Obama could no longer hold off plunging into the debate that still divides so much of America.

By most accounts, Obama did a masterful job aligning the promise of his candidacy with the grievances expressed by both blacks and whites, noting in particular how the anger of working-class whites over affirmative action and welfare formed the Reagan coalition. But the cable-news noise machine doesn't easily let go of something so juicy as the anti-American rhetoric served up by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The now-retired pastor did what the Clinton campaign had been unable to do--put Obama in a box he doesn't need to be in, one that brands him as a candidate primarily of black aspirations. The cable commentators kept pounding away, but in another universe, the one inhabited by Obama's base--the millennial generation--his Philadelphia speech became the most-viewed video on YouTube this week with almost 2.5 million hits so far. Maybe, just maybe, the cable critics and conservative pundits are talking to themselves.

At an election-watch panel Thursday morning organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a questioner using journalistic shorthand asked if the uproar over Reverend Wright "has legs." The consensus among the panelists was that Obama might have stanched the bleeding among Democratic primary voters but that the issue will continue to dog him in a more virulent form with questions about where his true loyalties lie. Is he American enough? He's new on the national stage, and people are prone to believe the negative campaign already underway on the Internet alleging various falsehoods. This belated scrutiny of Obama bolsters Clinton's argument that she's been vetted and there are no shoes to drop. You can almost hear her aides, sotto voce, saying "we told you so." Hillary's comment that it's "un-American" for Obama not to endorse a do-over vote in Michigan builds on the narrative that he's not one of us. She's got a point. The Republicans made John Kerry French; imagine what they can do with Obama.

The audience and even the moderator of the AEI panel seem startled when Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the venerable think tank, declared Obama the solid, even overwhelming favorite to be the Democrats' nominee. He ticked off what he calls "the fundamentals." Obama has won more states, more delegates and is 300,000-plus votes ahead of Clinton even if you add to the mix the disputed Florida primary she won. If her votes in Michigan were added--giving her a win in a state where Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot--the popular vote would be a wash. The moderator, Jim Glassman, was skeptical, and challenged the premise. What if Clinton wins Pennsylvania by 20 points? Wouldn't the superdelegates move to her because she has the momentum? Isn't that the whole point? "We're not there yet," Ornstein explained. "He would have to be bloodied far beyond where he is now" to justify awarding Clinton the nomination if she's lost the delegate count and the popular vote. Her campaign's inability to secure revotes in Michigan and Florida is a huge blow. The superdelegates are there to make sure the party doesn't commit political suicide. There are nine other states voting in addition to Pennsylvania--including North Carolina, the 10th largest state in the country, where Obama is favored to win. Clinton's path to the nomination is "doable but it remains an outside shot," says Ornstein.

Hillary has every right to stay in the race. If Obama's candidacy implodes, with or without her help, she'll be on hand to pick up the pieces. There will be more twists and turns before the race is settled by the superdelegates, probably some time in June. The news late in the week that low-level contract employees at the State Department had been rifling through Obama's passport file gave the cable noise machine something else to obsess about--on a subject that millions of Americans could identify with, government invasion of privacy. (Subsequent reports maintain that Clinton, too, had her privacy breached in a similar fashion.) Coupled with the coveted endorsement from former rival and current superdelegate Bill Richardson, Obama seemed once again on the upswing. Given the unsettled nature of the race and what's at stake for the party and the country, not to mention the Clintons, Obama should enjoy the respite. It won't last long.