Who's Ready for Change?

Barack Obama spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in the small town of Sumter, S.C. Wednesday in an attempt to encourage voters just three days before the state's Democratic primary. Video by Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 24, 2008


The community gymnasium here on this town's dilapidated south side was jammed with locals. Barack Obama kept them waiting three-quarters of an hour, but there was other entertainment.

First, Obama supporters danced and sang the soul tune "Hold On, I'm Comin'," substituting the words "Obama's Comin'." Then a local Baptist choir performed "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." And finally, a trio took the stage to sing a civil-rights-era song:

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come, oh, yes, it will

The candidate, when he finally arrived, carried with him a message of racial pride to the largely black audience. "Some people say . . . African Americans can't do it," he observed. "I'm one of those people who, when you tell me I can't do something, that's when I decide I'm going to do that." The audience thundered and called back with shouts of "Yes!" and "That's right!"

The scene -- a celebration of African American culture and achievement -- highlights the extraordinary revision of Obama's image here as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. For two years, some African Americans asked: Is he black enough? Now the question for this son of a white mother and an African father has become: Is he too black to win?

For Obama, it's a conundrum. To win the nomination, he needs to win South Carolina's primary on Saturday. And to win here in South Carolina, he needs to win the black vote. And yet, if he appears to be primarily an African American phenomenon, he's unlikely to win the nomination, much less the general election.

The concern showed itself Tuesday morning during Obama's first stop, at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. At the town hall meeting, Rita Moore-Johnson, who is black, raised a worry voiced by her 77-year-old father: "He feels that an African American candidate won't be able to do what he needs to do in Washington to get change done."

Obama gave a hopeful answer. "I am absolutely convinced that the American people right now, they don't care whether you are black, white, brown or green," he said. "If I came to you and I had polka dots, but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pockets and help you pay for college and keep America safe, you'd say, 'Okay, I wish he didn't have polka dots, but I'm still voting for him.' "

Polls, however, point to a deepening racial divide. A Mason-Dixon poll last week of Democrats likely to vote in South Carolina's primary found that Obama leads Hillary Rodham Clinton among black voters, 56 percent to 25 percent. But among white voters, Clinton leads him by 39 percent to 20 percent. Much the same thing is happening nationally.

Some of the shift can be explained as a result of African Americans turning to Obama with pride after seeing that white voters in Iowa embraced him. But the divide can also be explained by Clinton's remarks that appeared to minimize Martin Luther King Jr., and various jabs taken at Obama (shuck and jive, roll of the dice, fairy tale) from prominent Clinton supporters.

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