Will Americans Elect a Black President?

Washington Matters

Will Americans Elect a Black President?

That's the question everyone seems to be asking, though few are willing to be quite so blunt about it. Of course, it's an impossible question to answer in the abstract. The question this year is will they elect Barack Obama, a very specific African American. But race is part of that question and we ought to be talking about it frankly.


Obama's appeal has been his message of hope, his seeming ability to transcend politics as usual, his promise to work across ideological and demographic lines and his ability to inspire a whole new generation of voters. He was able to avoid the race issue for first several months of his campaign because he was non-threatening to whites and didn't embrace the identity politics or racially shaped agendas of many black candidates. But the Rev. Wright controversy ended that and made Americans look at Obama in a different light, as the New York Times pointed out in an important analysis.

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In the last several primaries, it's become clear that Obama is having trouble winning the support of demographic groups that have always been at the core of Democratic support -- voters who are white, older, less educated, who make less than $50,000 a year or who are Catholic. The question is why?


It may be because he's aloof, because he questioned their strongly held beliefs in religion or a heritage that includes gun ownership, because he doesn't understand their feelings and problems, because he doesn't know how to talk to them or because he's a lousy bowler.


Or it might be because he's black and therefore different, and they don't feel they can trust him because of that.


Undoubtedly, some whites won't vote for any African-American. But others are more supportive for  just that reason. Many blacks deserted Hillary Clinton because they were excited by the prospect of a black American, and many whites think his race adds an important dimension, providing a chance to show that the United States has made real progress on the race issue.  And I know more than a few Republicans who are thinking of voting for Obama in November even though they disagree with his liberal positions on a host of tax, trade and regulatory issues. They'd never vote for a white Democrat with the same positions, but they're giving serious thought to Obama because of his promise of a new way of doing business and his ability to rally young people and bring them into the political process.


Chances are, race will hurt Obama more than it will boost him, but it's hard to calculate the percentages. Only one thing's for sure. We'll never know if Democrats don't try.


If I were a superdelegate, I'd stop trying to predict who has the best chance against John McCain. Democrats do a lousy job of picking nominees when they get hung up on the electability thing. How many Democrats backed John Kerry mostly because they thought his war record would inoculate him against GOP charges that Democrats are weak on national security? The fact is, electability is impossible to predict, so why not go with the candidate you really want?


Democrats run a huge risk whatever they do. They rejected the safer choices -- the white males who could have taken advantage of the economy and the war and Bush's low ratings without facing big negatives of their own (so far as we know anyway). So now they have only a tough choice. Do they pick Clinton, who is hated by half the population and broadly viewed as dishonest, or Obama, who is African-American and who may not have enough experience to weather Republican attacks that have already begun in earnest.


That choice is now clearly laced by the race issue and it's only natural to wonder whether a majority of Americans are ready to elect an African-American president -- or more specifically, this African-American. We don't know. And we won't find out unless Democrats quit their hand-wringing and take a chance.