Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Seeking Unity, Obama Feels Pull of Racial Divide
By GINGER THOMPSON
Published: February 12, 2008
From the New York Times
WASHINGTON — It was November 2006 when Senator Barack Obama first gathered friends and advisers at a Washington law firm to brainstorm about what it would take for him to win the presidency.
Those who attended the meeting said the mix of excitement and trepidation at times felt asphyxiating, as the group weighed the challenges of such a long shot. Would Mr. Obama be able to raise enough money? What kind of toll would a campaign take on him and his family? What kind of organization could he build?
Halfway into the session, Broderick Johnson, a Washington lawyer and informal adviser to Mr. Obama, spoke up. “What about race?” he asked.
Mr. Obama’s dismissal was swift and unequivocal.
He had been able to navigate racial politics in Illinois, Mr. Obama told the group, and was confident he could do so across the nation. “I believe America is ready,” one aide recalled him saying.
The race issue got all of five minutes at that meeting, setting what Mr. Obama and his advisers hoped would be the tone of a campaign they were determined not to define by the color of his skin.
As he heads into a fresh round of contests Tuesday, the Potomac primaries, in a tight rivalry with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and with an impressive record of victories across the nation in which he drew significant white votes and overwhelming black support, he claims to have accomplished that goal. Some South Carolina supporters summed up his broad appeal and message about transcending differences in a chant: “Race Doesn’t Matter.”
Glimpses inside the Obama campaign show, though, that while the senator had hoped his colorblind style of politics would lift the country above historic racial tensions, from Day 1 his bid for the presidency has been pulled into the thick of them. While his speeches focus on unifying voters, his campaign has learned the hard way that courting a divided electorate requires reaching out group by group.
Instead of following a plotted course, Mr. Obama’s campaign has zigged and zagged, reacting to outside forces and internal differences between the predominantly white team of top advisers and the mostly black tier of aides.
The dynamic began the first day of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid, when white advisers encouraged him to withdraw an invitation to his pastor, whose Afro-centric sermons have been construed as antiwhite, to deliver the invocation at the official campaign kickoff. Then, when his candidacy was met by a wave of African-American suspicion, the senator’s black aides pulled in prominent black scholars, business leaders and elected officials as advisers.
Aides to Mr. Obama, who asked not to be identified because the campaign would not authorize them to speak to the press, said he stayed away from a civil rights demonstration and did not publicize visits to black churches when he was struggling to win over white voters in Iowa. Then, a month after Representative John Lewis of Georgia endorsed Mrs. Clinton, setting off concerns about black voters’ ambivalence toward Mr. Obama, the campaign deployed his wife, Michelle, whose upbringing on the South Side of Chicago was more familiar to many blacks than Mr. Obama’s biracial background.
The campaign’s strategy in the first contests left Mr. Obama vulnerable with Latinos, which hurt him in California and could do the same in the Texas primary on March 4.
Faulted by Latino leaders as not being visible enough in their communities and not understanding what issues resonated with immigrants, the campaign has been trying hard to catch up, scheduling more face-to-face meetings with voters, snaring endorsements from Latino politicians and fine-tuning his message.
Mr. Obama has resisted any effort to suggest that the presidential primaries were breaking along racial lines.
“There are not a lot of African-Americans in Nebraska the last time I checked, or in Utah or in Idaho, areas where I probably won some of my biggest margins,” he said Sunday in an NPR interview.
“There’s no doubt that I’m getting more African-American votes,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that the race is dividing along racial lines. You know, in places like Washington State we won across the board, from men, from women, from African-Americans, from whites and from Asians.”
A Rhetorical Tightrope
David Axelrod, the chief strategist of the Obama campaign, said in an interview that although he and Mr. Obama did not map out a detailed strategy for dealing with race when plotting a presidential run, they were well aware it would weigh on his campaign.
As a consultant to several black elected officials, Mr. Axelrod has been steeped in racially charged elections. And he said Mr. Obama had faced the challenges of racial politics in the campaign that propelled him to the Senate, where he is only the third black elected since Reconstruction.
Mr. Axelrod said he had learned there was “a certain physics” to winning votes across racial lines. Previous campaigns by African-Americans — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton — had overwhelmingly relied on black support that wound up defining, and confining, their candidacies.
By contrast, from the moment Mr. Obama stepped onto the national political stage, he has paid as much attention — or more, some aides said — to a far broader audience. “He believes you can have the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still win support among whites,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Questions about Mr. Obama’s “blackness,” though, quickly threatened to obscure the reasons he believed himself most qualified to become the country’s next president. A Rolling Stone article linked him to the militant preaching of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The story quoted the minister as saying in a sermon, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.”
Mr. Axelrod said he and Mr. Obama decided to take Mr. Wright off the program for the campaign announcement in February 2007, concluding that the attention would drag the pastor into a negative spotlight and might distract from efforts to portray the senator as a candidate capable of unifying the country.
The day after the rally, which was on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Illinois, Mr. Obama was sharply criticized by African-American academics, media celebrities and policy experts at a conference in Hampton, Va. Among the most often cited was Cornel West, the renowned Princeton scholar. He and others argued that Mr. Obama should speak forcefully about the legacy of racism in the nation and not cast the problems that disproportionately affect blacks as social ills shared by many Americans.
“He’s got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have fears and anxieties,” Dr. West said at the time. “He’s got to speak them in such a way that he holds us at arm’s length; enough to say he loves us, but not too close to scare them away.”
Working From Inside
Mr. Obama was so annoyed by the complaints, one aide recalled, that he asked staff members to invite more than 50 influential African-Americans, including some of his critics, to meet with him, hoping to win them over with the gale force of his charisma.
But his aides cautioned that such a large event would be sure to draw press attention. Instead, they suggested that Mr. Obama establish a smaller advisory council of prominent black figures. In a two-hour telephone call, he not only persuaded Dr. West to serve on the panel, but also convinced him that his rhetorical tightrope — reassuring whites without seeming to abandon blacks — was necessary.
Dr. West recalled the conversation, saying that if Mr. Obama focused on disparities caused by a history of white privilege, “he’d be pegged as a candidate who caters only to the needs of black folks.”
“His campaign is about all folks,” Dr. West said.
Initially, Mr. Obama’s aides said, his campaign was all about Iowa, whose mostly white electorate had established a reputation for launching political underdogs. He seldom talked explicitly about race, aides said. He did not publicize appearances at black churches on his press schedule. Still, his campaign reached out quietly to African-American voters, realizing that even the smallest pockets of supporters could be decisive.
Aides said Mr. Obama’s campaign was unaware of the magnitude of the tensions brewing in Jena, La., over charges of attempted murder that had been filed against six youths involved in a schoolyard fight until plans for a march, organized by Mr. Sharpton, began to appear in the news media.
Mr. Obama was the first presidential candidate to respond to Mr. Sharpton’s call to denounce what was going on in Jena, saying the cases against the students were not a matter of black versus white, but a matter of right versus wrong. He then called Mr. Sharpton to explain that he had important votes in the Senate, and that he would not attend the march because he did not want to politicize the issue.
“We agreed on inside-outside roles,” Mr. Sharpton said, referring to himself and Mr. Obama, echoing a famous conversation between President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I would continue my work agitating the system from the outside, and he would do what he could to make changes from the inside.”
By the fall, however, while Mr. Obama’s campaign was still trailing Mrs. Clinton among white voters in Iowa, the loss of the endorsement by Mr. Lewis, the Georgia representative, made clear that he faced troubles among black voters as well.
“He told John that that he felt like a father was stabbing him in the back,” an aide to Mr. Obama said. “Barack sees himself as an extension of the civil rights movement, and so it hurt him deeply when a leader of that movement told him he wasn’t ready.”
Aides said it proved a pivotal moment in the campaign, with some staff members — mostly white — urging Mr. Obama to stay focused on Iowa, while others — most of them black — warning that he needed to court black voters and elected officials more actively.
“Nobody put race explicitly on the table,” one aide said. “But there was certainly the feeling among some of the black staff that some of the white staff did not care enough about winning black votes.”
New Efforts to Reach Out
In the end, Mr. Obama satisfied both groups, keeping himself focused on Iowa while dispatching his wife to South Carolina, where she delivered a major speech at South Carolina State University, a historically black college in Orangeburg.
“It took Barack a while to agree,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor who is part of the black advisory group. “But we told him she had to be the one to confront the myths and fears of black voters.
“Here was a black woman, a mother, who grew up poor, learned to sleep without heat and rose above that to get an Ivy League education,” Professor Ogletree added. “But she was also the kind of woman who would take her shoes off because her feet hurt. She was real from the moment she stepped on stage.”
By mid-January, Mr. Obama had so much support among black voters in South Carolina that he worried that his rivals would try to marginalize his campaign as a black-only phenomenon — a concern that later proved well-founded when former President Bill Clinton compared Mr. Obama’s campaign to Mr. Jackson’s. So before arriving in the state, Mr. Obama stopped in Atlanta to mark Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
Georgia, like South Carolina, was expected to deliver large numbers of black votes to Mr. Obama. But it was also a place where his viability as a candidate would be measured by his ability to win a respectable number of white votes.
Standing before a congregation filled with veterans of the civil rights movement, Mr. Obama talked about the struggles of a poor white woman, whose family had no health insurance and often had to choose between buying food and medicine.
While Mr. Obama has made great strides in appealing to white and black voters, his campaign has proved less effective in drawing Latino support. While a few experts point to longstanding rivalries between blacks and Hispanics over jobs and other opportunities, most faulted him as doing too little, too late.
“Obama’s campaign failed to rise to the occasion,” scolded La Opinión, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in California, which had endorsed Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama’s national field director, Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, vowed that Mr. Obama’s effort in Texas would be different.
“You are going to see Senator Obama campaign the way he did in Iowa,” Mr. Figueroa said. “We’re going to take him to little communities so that he’s not only going to touch voters with his words, he’s going to be able to reach out and physically touch them.”
Jeff Zeleny and Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.