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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.

"I've never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe," Obama wrote in his latest book, "The Audacity of Hope," in which he also observed that he has "blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac."

Still, Obama chose to build his political career by rooting himself in the black community. In 1983, not long after resigning from a high-powered financial consultant's post in Manhattan, he moved to Chicago as a $10,000-a-year organizer for the Calumet Community Religious Conference. Dressed casually, he would visit barbershops and cruise the main thoroughfares in his used car to get a feel for the South Side.

He left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School and then returned to head a statewide voter-registration effort before joining a small civil rights law firm. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois Senate from a mostly black South Side district.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, another black lawyer, were married at the predominantly black Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. "He had built himself a base among black voters on the South Side," said Timuel D. Black, professor emeritus at City Colleges of Chicago.

Despite his record of grass-roots work, questions about Obama's racial credentials formed a critical subplot for his ill-fated primary challenge of Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000. Rush, a former Black Panther, appeared politically wounded after failing badly in his campaign to unseat Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley the year before. But Rush trounced Obama 2 to 1, and the congressman was joined on primary night by Jackson, who had endorsed him.

Rush won in part by depicting Obama as a Harvard elitist who was out of touch with the concerns of workaday African Americans. More suspect for some voters was that Obama lived in racially mixed and largely upscale Hyde Park and was teaching law part time at the University of Chicago, which is widely viewed as being disconnected from the poor South Side communities nearby.

"There were elements within the African American community who might have suggested 'Well, he's from Hyde Park' or 'He went to Harvard' or 'He was born in Hawaii, so he might not be black enough,' " Obama told the Chicago Tribune.

Those questions were intensified by Obama's unusual heritage, according to other observers. Kwame Raoul, a Haitian American who now fills Obama's former seat in the state Senate, said he too has encountered skepticism from black voters for his ethnic background and for his name.

"When I first decided to run for office and circulate petitions, people would say: 'Kwame Raoul? I'm not voting for a foreigner,' " he said. "I'm certain that before people knew who Barack Obama was, he had to deal with the same thing."

Four years after losing to Rush, Obama cruised to a lopsided victory during a U.S. Senate run in which the campaigns of his major primary and general election opponents imploded in scandal. Still, the issue of his heritage was raised by Alan Keyes, the black radio host and conservative activist brought in late by the Republican Party to oppose Obama.

During the campaign, Keyes argued that the government should pay reparations to descendants of slaves -- pointedly observing that Obama would not qualify under his proposal. When the question of race was raised in that campaign, Obama frequently responded with a practiced line. "I'm rooted in the African American community," he would say. "But I'm not limited by it."

Keyes's broadside had little effect as Obama won his Senate seat with strong support in many parts of the state, including in the black precincts where he had been drubbed in his race for the House. Now, as Obama moves closer to formalizing his presidential campaign, he is sure to be confronted with more questions about his racial identity. Through his staff, Obama declined to comment.

"This is a question Senator Obama has had to answer many times during his career," said Tommy Vietor, Obama's press secretary. ". . . He's consistently proved that he hasn't forgotten the communities he's worked with so far, and certainly won't in the future."

In Chicago's storied Bronzeville neighborhood, African Americans asked about his candidacy mainly expressed excitement. Browsing through Afrocentric Book Store, Nathan Unger, 63, stopped to say that he wants Obama to run although he harbors few illusions about how much Obama would be able to focus on the concerns of black voters.

"Even if we get 30 percent from Obama, we're not going to get that from anybody else," Unger said. "From white folks, we might get 10 percent. What I worry about is that we might want too much from him. It's not just about us out here; it's about everybody."

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb, staff researcher Julie Tate and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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