How Big a Stretch?

Supporters say Barack Obama's message of unity and inclusion, plus the charisma factor, are factors in his appeal, especially to white voters.
Supporters say Barack Obama's message of unity and inclusion, plus the charisma factor, are factors in his appeal, especially to white voters. (Tami Chappell - Reuters)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

They watch him. They listen to him talk. Is he the kind of person they think he is? The kind of black man? The stakes are oh so high. It's the presidency he's after, the breaking down of a historic barrier. Can he transcend racial divisions? Is it safe to support him? Is he safe from harm while running for president in a nation of such abiding racial tension?

For Sen. Barack Obama's white supporters, this is the dialogue of race, the parsing of perceptions and expectations as they watch their man campaign.

They are people like Katie Lang, 32, a Tampa insurance executive, who has her own simple formula for judging Obama. In a word, it's transcendence. She believes Obama, when it comes to race, rises above the fray.

"Obama speaks to everyone. He doesn't just speak to one race, one group," she says. "He is what is good about this nation."

At a campaign event in Tampa last month, she hung on Obama's every word as he spoke to an adoring crowd packed into the courtyard of the historic Cuban Club of Ybor City. As she listened, race wasn't in the forefront of her mind, she says later. It usually isn't, she says.

"Kind of like, if I could compare him to Tiger Woods. When I look at Tiger Woods, I see the best golfer in the world," she says. "So when I see Barack Obama, I see a strong political candidate. I do not see 'Oh, that's a black man running for president, or African American or multiracial black.' It's not what comes to mind first. What comes to mind first is: great platform, charismatic, good leader, attractive."

If the United States is to elect its first black president, it is white voters like Lang who largely will make that choice. Though much has been made about whether Obama is "black enough" for black voters, perhaps a more relevant question is this: Has the nation's white majority evolved to a point where it can elect a black man as president?

Obama's political future rests in part on the complicated answer to that question. In separate interviews, 10 white supporters who attended the Tampa fundraising rally talked about their perceptions of the dicey realm of race and its impact on Obama's electability. Though they admire his character, achievements, charisma and political philosophy, many expressed fear that racial prejudice might stymie his campaign. They discussed, haltingly in some cases, their own racial beliefs and perceptions as well as the cues they pick up from Obama to learn something of his racial philosophy. They listen to the timbre of his voice and the substance of his message to discern whether he is speaking to "us" and not just to "them."

Lang, a native New Yorker, says her upbringing was all about bridging ethnic and racial divisions. She grew up amid a melange of people. Her playmates were African American, Jewish, Korean, Samoan, Pakistani and, like herself, Irish. She became accustomed at an early age, she says, to looking beyond race and ethnicity. Today she conducts diversity training in her workplace and is a proponent of affirmative action, a position she staked out in college. Stepping out of the conservative tradition of her family and eschewing her previous support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) , she believes Obama offers a new vision of politics and leadership.

Yet, as much as she would like to not focus on Obama and race, on reflection she realizes that she does. She sometimes wonders: Does Obama feel pressured to "go above and beyond and work even harder" than do whites? Or: Is he safe from the "evil people" who could be agitated by the presence of "an African American with a name like that? . . . So I think he's taking a huge risk," she says. For that, she admires him even more.

Navigating the Electorate

Richard Fueyo, 45, an antitrust lawyer, stood under the hot sun at the Obama rally along with his wife, Mary Ann, and 10-year-old daughter, Kate. With a Spanish American father and a white American mother, Fueyo knows a bit about straddling different cultures. He did not learn Spanish as a child because his family wanted to avoid the ensuing stigma. Kids who spoke Spanish were considered "dumb," he says. His father even changed his name from Jesus to Jack.

The Fueyos are attracted to Obama because of his statements on spirituality and community. In them, they hear strains of Catholic social teachings on human dignity and equality. Mary Ann Fueyo has not yet decided whom to support, while her husband already is in Obama's corner.

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