Monday, February 12, 2007

Barack Obama: Breaking the Mold of African American Politicians?

Illinois Senator Makes History By Becoming the First Major 'Generation X' Candidate for the Presidency. But Can He Overcome Suspicions By Older African Americans That He's Not 'Black Enough?'

By Skeeter Sanders

February is African American History Month. And so far, this February is seeing some major moments of history being made right before our eyes involving African Americans.

Last weekend, we witnessed the spectacle of the Super Bowl -- America's biggest annual sports extravaganza -- become a contest for the first time ever between two teams whose head coaches were African American, ultimately won by the Indianapolis Colts, whose head coach, Tony Dungy, reach the greatest triumph of his career after a year of personal tragedy.

This weekend just past, we witnessed the spectacle of a tall, gangly U.S. senator from the Land of Lincoln standing behind a podium in front of the old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois to formally announce his candidacy for the nation's highest office.

And while Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) isn't the first black person to make a run for the White House -- Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) was the trailblazer when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968 -- Obama has something that Chisholm, Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988), and the Reverend Al Sharpton (2004) sorely lacked: immense popularity across the racial and ethnic spectrum.

Or does he?

One segment of the American electorate that has so far been surprisingly lukewarm to Obama's bid for the presidency is the African American community, or so it seems. Older African Americans -- long accustomed to black politicians with solid credentials from the civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s and the "black is beautiful" ethos of the '70s -- don't quite know what to make of him.

A Living Embodiment of Dr. King's Dream -- Or the Product of a White Upbringing?

Here is the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father --both literally and figuratively a child of the civil rights era -- whose full name, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., evokes memories of Middle Eastern leaders (Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel, the late King Hussein of Jordan, the late dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden), who was born in the Aloha State and who spent much of his youth living in Indonesia.

Obama was only a two-year-old toddler when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, spoke of his dream that "One day, my four little children will grow up in a world where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

But it was also while Obama was two years old when his parents divorced. In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Obama described his experiences growing up in the white, middle-class family of his mother, Ann Dunham. His knowledge about his absent father, Barack Obama, Sr., came mainly through family stories and photographs.

Of his early childhood, Obama wrote: "That my father looked nothing like the people around me — that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk — barely registered in my mind."

Black Politicos, Caught Off-Guard, Lukewarm to Obama

Unlike Chisholm, Jackson and Sharpton before him, Obama is the first African-American candidate to enter a presidential race as one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, trailing only fellow Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

But also unlike his black predecessors seeking the nomination, Obama faces strong resistance from some of his fellow African-American officials -- and among black voters overall, with opinion polls showing Obama far behind Clinton among African-American voters, many of whom still revere as a hero the senator's husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Obama’s surprisingly meteoric rise in popularity, particularly among white voters, caught black leaders off-guard, with several saying that they know very little about him (Admittedly, Obama was virtually unknown outside of Illinois until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004) and others pointing out that they have long-standing ties to other candidates, notably Clinton and former Senator John Edwards (D-North Carolina).

For Grass-Roots African-Americans, Is Obama "Black Enough?"

The debate over Obama is most often heard among the African-American political and academic elite and it remains to be seen if it’s trickled down to the black grass roots. But there are widespread questions about whether this caramel-skinned man of mixed African and Caucasian heritage really understands the African-American experience.

Yet Obama is married to a black woman and has two black children. "That makes him black enough for me and, I believe, most of the people," Carol Swain, an African-American professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told National Public Radio.

Adding to the sense of unease among African-Americans about Obama's "black credentials" is the fact that he was born in and spent his early childhood in Hawaii -- where to this day, virtually the only African-Americans living in the Aloha State are U.S. military personnel and their families -- and his adolescent years in Indonesia, a period the senator treasures.

Obama's Identity an Issue in His 2000 Congressional Race Against a Former Black Panther. . .

Racial identity has long been a struggle for the 45-year-old Obama to deal with -- and it came to a head in 2000 when Obama ran for Congress in a predominantly African-American district in Chicago. His opponent: Incumbent Representative Bobby Rush (D-Illinois), a former Black Panther Party activist. Rush easily trounced Obama.

In an interview with NPR, Rush readily admitted, "I’m a race politician and he’s not. I don’t compromise. I don’t step back. I don’t try to deny. I’m proud to be an African-American.

"I shed blood on the streets of Chicago on behalf of the African-American community," Rush said, referring to his Black Panther days. "And here was a guy [Obama] who came in and say, 'well, you know, I went to Harvard and so I should be your leader.' That didn’t appeal to the broadest constituency for that congressional race."

Rush acknowledged that Obama's broad appeal was more of a factor in his successful Senate run four years later. "In terms of a Senate race, in terms of a presidential race, you deal with broader issues as opposed to the retail issues," he told NPR.

. . .But a Non-Issue In His 2004 Senate Bid

Ironically, the question of who's "black enough" would come back four years later, when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate -- only this time, it would haunt his Republican opponent, the ultraconservative commentator Alan Keyes.

Not only did African-American critics of Keyes brand him an "Uncle Tom" for his right-wing social views -- which proved to be an embarrassment even for die-hard GOP stalwarts -- it didn't help that Keyes was also branded a "carpetbagger" for moving to Illinois from Maryland specifically to run against Obama after the GOP nominee, Jack Ryan, was forced to withdraw from the race in the wake of a sex scandal involving his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan ("Star Trek: Voyager").

In the end, Obama buried Keyes in a 73-percent-to-27 percent landslide.

Hype Reminiscent of That Which Surrounded Colin Powell in 1999

To a great degree, the sensation over Obama's presidential run is reminiscent of a similar outburst of hype and publicity seven years ago about a possible White House run by an even more prominent African-American: Colin Powell.

In 1999, there was tremendous media buzz that the then-four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who successfully executed Operation Desert Storm in 1991, would seek the Republican presidential nomination.

But there was one big problem: Powell was, and still is, unabashedly pro-choice on the volatile issue of abortion and a staunch defender of affirmative action -- positions that put him squarely at odds with conservative voters who tend to dominate GOP primaries.

Then there was Powell's wife, Alma. She was unalterably opposed to her husband making a run for president, fearing that had he won election in 2000, he would have fallen victim to the so-called "zero-year curse" -- which saw every president elected in a year ending in zero, from William Henry Harrison (1840) to John F. Kennedy (1960) dying in office.

Mrs. Powell wasn't convinced that Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, had broken the curse, even though he survived an assassination attempt against him less than three months after he took office.

Faced with the implacable opposition of his wife, Powell announced that he would not run, telling reporters that, at age 64, he lacked "the fire in the belly" to seek the presidency.

Our First "Generation X" President, Too?

Clearly, Obama has that "fire in the belly." But he faces a formidable obstacle in Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And already, at least one right-wing radio talk-show host has gone on a full-throated attack against Obama even before he announced his candidacy.

If elected, Obama would not only be the nation's first African-American president, but at age 46 in 2008, he would also be the same age as Bill Clinton when he was elected in 1992 -- the first president from the tail end of the Baby Boom and the beginning of Generation X -- which he noted in his announcement speech.

"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he said. "Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

Obama Admits Being a "Novelty" for Now -- But Rejects "Litmus Test" Over His Faith

Obama said Sunday he does not think voters have a litmus test on religion, whether about his evangelical Christianity or his childhood years living in the world's largest Muslim country.

"If your name is Barack Hussein Obama, you can expect it, some of that. I think the majority of voters know that I'm a member of the United Church of Christ, and that I take my faith seriously," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He attends a Chicago church with his wife and two young daughters.

"Ultimately what I think voters will be looking for is not so much a litmus test on faith as an assurance that a candidate has a value system and that is appreciative of the role that religious faith can play in helping shape people's lives," he added.

Obama also acknowledged his race might be a "novelty" this early in the presidential contest, sparred with the prime minister of Australia over Iraq, and said he has a higher burden of proof with voters because of his relative inexperience.

Given that the 2008 presidential race is truly wide open -- the first time there will be no incumbent president or vice president in the running since the Eisenhower-Stevenson contest in 1952 -- anything is possible.

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Volume II, Number 10
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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