Does Obama’s Winning Streak Prove that Race Doesn’t Matter?

Obama stands for a new kind of politics, and many Americans approve of that message.

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The Tiger Woods of politics, Obama might draw people who have grown weary of partisan gridlock back into the voting booth.

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Everything? The extremity of this and other conclusions not only undercuts Steele's more nuanced points but also denies what others see as Obama's success in forging links of shared interest among groups as seemingly diverse as urban blacks in Atlanta and rural whites in Maine. But it is not just conservatives who charge that even a subtle form of identity politics will ultimately weaken Obama's message and appeal, particularly among other minority groups such as Hispanics. Juan Rangel, CEO of United Neighborhood Organization in Chicago, knew Obama as an organizer and as a state legislator and says that he admires much about the candidate. "More than most other African-American leaders, he is looking for ways to buck the old style of black politics," Rangel says, "But he's no Bill Cosby in insisting on personal responsibility."

A Clinton supporter himself, Rangel questions how far Obama will be able to move beyond "a black activist mentality" that he believes emphasizes victimization. "It's hard for someone coming out of that tradition to break out of it without losing their core constituency," says Rangel. "He's trying to walk the line of not offending the old leadership."

But, in truth, how else could an African-American Democratic politician walk? Roger Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason and both a participant in and observer of the civil rights movement, says that Obama has a political agenda that goes far beyond, but still includes, the issues of discrimination and poverty as matters that must be addressed to achieve a better America. But as Wilkins puts it, "He is not a civil rights era guy, and he can't pretend to be one. Nobody wants someone whose mind is stuck in and formed by events of four decades ago. This man is looking at America whole."

American idol. Yet the carefully calibrated distance that Obama has maintained from Jackson and other civil rights era leaders continues to provoke comment. Some who know him say that Jackson, for one, has been quietly hurt by that distance, even while understanding the need for it.

Obama's critics from the left even charge that he and other members of a younger generation of black politicians—including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker—have gone too far in distancing themselves not only from the older leaders but also from the issue-driven movement-style politics of the civil rights era.

"Obama's politics is corporate driven," says author-activist Kevin Gray, who headed Jackson's South Carolina campaign in 1988. "It's advertising. It's image related. It hits on broad themes and can't come down on any issues unless there's a broad consensus." Sounding at times a little like Steele, Gray says that he finds talk about an "Obama movement" both revealing and disturbingly empty. "It is dangerous to see a man as a movement," says Gray, "even if he is identified with change in some big way. We ought to be clear what we mean about these things, or we just end up with the American Idol president." In light of what the civil rights movement of the 1960s achieved in the areas of law and social policy, why, Gray asks, shouldn't the new black leaders—whom he calls "smoothy-doothies"—be pressing for equally bold changes?

But many of the old movement people acknowledge that times and challenges have changed. "It's a necessary choice he's made," says Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a professor of history at the University of Virginia and American University. "You can't hope to be a governor or president unless you appeal to a broad swath of people." Still, Bond doesn't accept that Obama has abandoned the ideals of the movement, even if he operates in ways that are different from those of the old movement leaders. "Listen to what he says; read what he writes," Bond says. "He's combining two [political] styles and making them into one."