The Steepest Climb

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 27, 2007

Barack Obama has already soared to a place that no black politician has ever reached. He sits on a crest above the vast expanse of the national electorate, not squeezed into a niche, not strapped for cash, a sudden comfortable surprise among the presidential front-runners. They say he caught lightning in a jar. Some say the lightning catcher can win.

Every African American politician who has ever dreamed of leading the country knows how difficult it is to occupy this space. For decades, there has been a rolling conversation in black political circles about who and when and how to run for president. In 2000, President Clinton's former chief adviser on race, Christopher Edley Jr., was asked to speculate about the prospects of a black president by 2020.

"I'm pessimistic about that," said Edley, who by then had returned to his Harvard Law School professorship. "I think we will see a woman or Latino before we see an African American."

It wasn't just that Edley had peered over the horizon and taken note of the growing Latino population. Or that he had observed Hillary Clinton up close and could sense her potency. More than anything, Edley knew that the upper echelons of elective office -- particularly the Senate and the governor's mansions, which produce the most viable presidential candidacies -- were "still very segregated territory," as he put it. And he believed that winning the presidency would be tougher for a black politician than for anyone else, so daunting, in fact, that he could not even envision it at the turn of the century.

Edley, now dean of the Boalt Hall law school at the University of California, Berkeley, was reminded last week of his previous assessment. "Wow," he said, followed by a long pause. "I hope it's evidence that I'm a lousy prognosticator, because the evidence now is there is a lot more capacity for hopefulness among the electorate than I had thought."

Obama is a former student of Edley's at Harvard Law, and Edley is now an informal adviser to Obama's campaign -- "a tough thing for me," he says, because he feels close to the Clintons, and his wife, Maria Echaveste, who also was a top official in the Clinton White House, is backing the senator from New York. As for Obama, Edley describes himself as both "giddy" and "a bit wary."

"I pinch myself at least once a day, I really do," he says, "because a part of me really believes what I said eight years ago -- that it is fundamentally implausible [for an African American to be president]. But day by day, his success is proving me wrong. But I'm almost afraid to believe."

No Democratic or Republican presidential candidate has raised more money than Obama ($78.9 million through the last filing period, ending Sept. 30). Only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a higher favorable rating nationally -- he's at 53 percent, Obama is at 49 percent in the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll. And polls show Obama deadlocked with Clinton in Iowa and a close second to her in New Hampshire, the first two Democratic nominating competitions.

Ron Kirk, who was mayor of Dallas from the mid-1990s until 2001, is among those Obama consulted when he was considering a presidential run. "I could not give him a compelling reason why he should wait," Kirk says. "The type of appeal he has right now doesn't come around often. Political capital has to be spent in the public marketplace at the right time. I think there is something really magical about this brother."

Kirk, too, had been hailed as one of those shooting stars among black politicians. Not only had he run a major city, drawing support across racial and ideological lines, but in 2002 he had waged a competitive U.S. Senate race in Texas, one of the toughest places for a black Democrat to win statewide. Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, worked on Kirk's unsuccessful Senate campaign.

Kirk's advice to Obama: "You cannot reinvent yourself on the campaign trail," presenting different messages to different audiences. And: "Competency trumps everything. A lot of politics is about, 'Can you envision this person in this job?' "

Whether enough voters can envision Barack Obama in the Oval Office will be revealed shortly. But some black politicians believe the time is right, as the country has witnessed the gradual rise of African Americans in leadership roles -- from coaching major sports franchises to presiding over corporate boardrooms. Breakthroughs in the popular culture, where many Americans form their impressions of each other, have been among the hardest to achieve.

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