Obama's Appeal to Blacks Remains an Open Question

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

CHICAGO -- Looking around at the overwhelmingly white audience that was applauding Sen. Barack Obama's luncheon speech on Iraq at a downtown hotel recently, the Rev. B. Herbert Martin expressed both satisfaction and concern.

Martin, who said he was the only black person in the crowd, was thrilled that Obama, the only African American in the Senate, could engender such enthusiasm from a white audience because it offered further proof that the Illinois Democrat would be a formidable presidential candidate. But Martin also worried that in order to run successfully Obama would have to become a different kind of politician than the one who earned the trust of voters on Chicago's mostly black South Side as a state legislator before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

"How does he identify himself?" asked Martin, who was pastor to the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. "Will he continue to be an African American, or will he become some kind of new creation?"

The question of how Obama chooses to define and approach race looms large as he moves closer to formally launching his campaign next month. Although he rides a wave of enthusiasm among Democrats who like his vision of a different kind of politics and see him as an alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), it is not clear that his multiracial message can excite black voters hungry for affirmation of their top concerns.

Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University professor who has followed Obama's political ascent, said that he may be forced to choose: "You can be elected president as a black person only if you signal at some level that you are independent from black people" -- a move she said would be "guaranteed" to make black people angry. "He is going to have to figure out whether there is a way not to alienate and anger a black base that almost by definition is going to be disappointed," she said.

Already, that balancing act is causing some strains. Some of Obama's longtime black supporters in Illinois are grumbling about the largely white crowd of advisers who now surround Obama as he gears up his national campaign. "Who does he represent? That is what people are worried about," said Lorenzo Martin, publisher of the Chicago Standard newspapers, a chain of black-oriented weeklies that circulate in the southern suburbs. "When you look and see who is surrounding him, you are not going to see too many brothers. What you see is the liberal left."

Complicating matters is that Obama appears certain to encounter fierce competition for the black vote from the other leading Democratic presidential contenders. Black Democrats prefer Clinton 3 to 1 over Obama, and four out of five of black Democrats view her favorably, much higher than the 54 percent who have a favorable view of Obama, according to combined findings from two Washington Post-ABC polls taken in December and January. Clinton also enjoys close ties to top black elected officials, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, remains extremely popular among African Americans.

Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who launched his presidential campaign from New Orleans's devastated Lower Ninth Ward to highlight his commitment to attacking poverty, is also expected to make a strong appeal to black voters. And waiting in the wings is another African American, Al Sharpton, a candidate in 2004 who is considering running again.

"If we're talking about the urban agenda," Sharpton asked earlier this month in discussing his possible candidacy, "can you tell me anybody else in the field who's representing that right now?" And, in remarks that were widely interpreted as referring to Obama, he added: "Right now we're hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle. I'm not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content. I think when the meat hits the fire, we'll find out if it's just fat or if there's some real meat there."

Jesse L. Jackson, whose presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 created a sensation across black America that swept millions of new voters onto the rolls, said there is no guarantee that Obama could expect the same kind of support. "He faces some real challenges," Jackson said. "First, there will be intense competition for black votes. The other reason is that most black people met him two years ago on television from Boston."

Jackson was referring to the speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that propelled Obama onto the national stage when he was still an Illinois state senator. The contrast with Jackson's own background as a nationally known civil rights leader years before he ever thought of running for president was implicit. But Jackson said he has encouraged Obama to run, adding last week that his "inclinations are really to Barack."

Born to a white mother and a black Kenyan father, reared in Hawaii by his white grandparents and for a few years in Indonesia with his Indonesian stepfather, Obama in many ways embodies the one America he often talks about: He identifies himself as African American, but his experiences are at once those of African Americans, whites, Asian Americans and immigrants.

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