Post Magazine: Sen. Barack Obama, presidential contender

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Liza Mundy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007; 12:00 PM

Barack Obama needed more than talent and ambition to rocket from obscure state senator to presidential contender in three years. He needed serious luck.

In this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine, Liza Mundy examines the factors at play in the political phenomenon that is Barack Obama.

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Liza Mundy: Hello and thanks to everyone who is reading or joining in this chat about the magazine profile of Barack Obama. There are several questions waiting, so I'll get busy addressing them.

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Monroe, Mich: Why do think many Black Americans do not accept Barack Obama? I think it is ridiculous that some will not support him because they do not believe he is "Black" enough. Haven't we all learned that past presidential candidates, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were not credible and serious contenders because they were too narrowly focused on Black issues and ignored the political and economic factors criticial to any presidential aspirant?

Liza Mundy: I would be interested in hearing other readers' responses to this question. I think it's a complicated one, and also rich and interesting. Certainly, Sen. Obama chooses to position himself as a candidate who is rooted in the black community, but, as he says, not limited by it. This is clearly a position that will appeal to many, and alienate some as well. Some African American political analysts believe that he is too quick to change the subject away from problems that are specific to the black community ("sweep them under the rug," is how one analyst put it to me) but some voters--and not just white ones--will of course be attracted to this. From my point of view, it would seem that for many African American voters, it's not a question of whether Obama is "black enough," but rather a quesion of whether to support Obama or somebody like Hillary Clinton, who polls well among African American voters who associate her with an administration that is seen as having done much for black Americans.

I think that one very interesting group to look at more specifically would be African American women. I haven't seen a lot of writing on this, but I would think it might be a hard choice, whether to vote one's race or one's gender. Among African Americans supporting Hillary Clinton in a state like, say, South Carolina, I think it would be interesting to know the gender breakdown. But that's another topic, I guess.

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Bethesda, MD: I wish to express my appreciation for your excellent article

on Senator Obama. Two weeks ago I complained to the

ombudsman about the absence of investigative reporting by

the Post about this political neophyte who would be

president. Your article helps fill that gap.

You describe the senator as being both very ambitious and

very lucky. Would you also describe him as an opportunist?

Liza Mundy: No, I wouldn't, because "opportunist" has a pejorative connotation, and that would be something I would avoid in trying to write a piece that is fair and balanced. I think he is a person with very large goals who seizes opportunities when they materialize. I don't think that's the same thing as being an opportunist.

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Washington, DC: At the risk of contradicting the "Jackpot" theme of your

article, I would point out that almost exactly one year ago,

the cover of the Magazine was also used for a feature article

on a Presidential candidate -- one John McCain. If the next

year for Obama goes as badly as the last did for McCain, I

don't think we'll have to worry about the "Jackpot" motif --

instead, 2012 candidates could end up talking about the

Curse of the Post Magazine Article.

Liza Mundy: Point well taken!

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Washington, DC: It really struck me while reading your piece that Sen. Obama does not come from any sort of privledge as a lot of our candidates tend to. He really is a self made man, it seems to me.

Anyway, I really enjoyed your detailed piece.

Liza Mundy: Thanks. That is a very good point. His childhood and origins are indeed so interesting, and you are right: while he did attend a private school in Hawaii for a number of years, his family was by no means wealthy, and one sense that it was a real stretch for his grandparents and his mother to send him there. Also, he was for all intents and purposes, like Bill Clinton, raised by a single mother. For what that's worth.

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I would think it might be a hard choice, whether to vote one's race or one's gender. : OH, please, that's insulting to same women and blacks can only vote their race or gender, that we can't analyze politics enough to vote based on content and issues. I am a white woman who prefers the black male democratic candidate because of his positions. Hillary and I may both be white women, but she is too pandering for my likes.

Liza Mundy: Well, of course people don't ONLY vote race or gender, but in a situation like this one, don't you think race or gender might at least somewhat enter a voter's thinking? As factors among many? Are you suggesting they are entirely irrelevant?

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Alpharetta, Ga: Some polls did find Barack Obama up, but the ones that found Clinton with an edge sometimes found Obama up with men and Clinton up more with women. And one of his aides said in an article that the problem in SC is african-american women. So, you're right about that. However, it might be worthwhile to note blacks migrated towards Obama at the end of his Senate primary campaign.

I wanted to ask you. I'm an Obama supporter, but once I tried to look past all the hype and raise the questions like if anyone can change our politics, I did find something amidst all the rock-star attention: optimism. His response about race at the YouTube debate, he writes in his book, "My heart is filled with love for this country." It really seems he has a very deeply held sense of optimism. Do you think that explains some of his appeal or success?

Liza Mundy: Well, yes, absolutely, it seems clear that his message of hope and optimism--and unity--was a major reason why his keynote speech made such a splash at the convention. Some will of course dismiss it as naive, and others will be energized and inspired. The need, of course, thereafter, is to fill out the message with policy and specific positions, which is what this nominating process will be about. And to prove that he is, while optimistic, tough enough to deal with the bad guys, an issue that the Clinton people tried to take advantage of a few weeks back. That's another delicate line to walk, isn't it?

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Chappell, NC: As a Black male, I find it reprehensible that many Blacks view men such as Barack Obama and Colin Powell as not being Black enough because they don't dwell on racism and the victim mindset. Blacks such as Jesse Jackson and Michael Eric Dyson have done Blacks a disservice by lending credibility to the myth that all our failures can be blamed on racism. We have disenfranchised ourselves by glorifying the thug lifestyle and foregoing education. Powell and Obama represent the future of Black leadership, but it is too bad that many will not hear there message because these men stress responsibility and not victimology.

Liza Mundy: An important viewpoint: again, another way in which the Obama candidacy is really pushing our national conversation in productive ways.

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Southern Maryland: Thanks Liza for your piece. I think Senator Obama has a good chance, maybe even a great chance for his bid for Presidency. It seems everyone is ready for change and we (the American public) will take the next available Democrat on the ballot. Whether that will be Barack, Hillary or John only time will tell. Whether that choice will be the best one for our country....again, only time will tell.

Did your piece sway me towards Obama? hmmm, I can't say just yet...my hope is it's one of the three I mention, I'm still doing my homework.

For the record: White, Female, Age 50

Liza Mundy: Some comments--like this one--I will just post, becuase they are interesting and don't really need a gloss from me.

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San Francisco, Calif: You say it may be hard for African Americans to choose

gender or ethnicity. Although I understand that emotional

appeal means a great deal, I would strongly argue that

Obama and Clinton are very different candidates with a very

different world view and approach to politics. Don't you

think the electorate will eventually focus on issues or will the

electorate respond only to gender or ethnicity?

Liza Mundy: I don't know, and it will be so interesting to see how that plays out. Don't you think it will be some hazy combination of both? I recall one recent conversation with a woman, a Democratic voter, in her early 70s, who says that she will vote for Hillary Clinton because she believes it will be her only chance, in her lifetime, to vote for a woman for president. She may or may not be correct about that, of course, and she presumably wouldn't vote for Clinton if she disagreed with her on the issues, but it was striking to me to see how gender was a kind of tipping point. Obviously that's not a scientific analysis.

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Merritt Island, Fla: What do you think of a possible Clinton/Obama ticket? Many may shun this possibility, however, if they are elected this would set the stage for Obama to possibly win the presidency in 2016. What are your thoughts?

Liza Mundy: My thoughts are that anything is possible.

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Atlanta, GA: As a Black woman, this issue of race and gender never confuse me. I used U.S. history as my guide. Women may have received the Vote in 1920, but on the whole I think a lot of Black women are more aware of the Voting Right Acts of 1965. The Feminist movement of the 60s and 70s was targeted for White women. Minority women can later. I'm Black first, a woman second. And, no, I don't know who I'll be voting for, but not because I'm using race and gender as my guide. I'm using issues. All of the candidate haven't flushed out everything on their platforms.

Liza Mundy: Well said.

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don't you think race or gender might at least somewhat enter a voter's thinking? : I think it would influence negative reponses more than postiive: IE: IT's more likely to make someone say "I'd never vote for a woman (or a black)," than influence someone to say: "I'm going to vote for the woman because I"m a woman."

Liza Mundy: Hmmm. That's an interesting, and also a very dispiriting point. I don't know if I buy it. It is true that historically, pollsters have found, more white voters SAY they will vote for a black candidate than actually do so.

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Arlington, VA: Reading your article made me realize that one of the reasons Obama interests me is that he is the first candidate that feels like he is from my generation. (I'm 40). Although born in 1961, which I guess is still technically part of the baby boom, he seems more like a Gen X.

Not necessarily a good thing, political, given my generation's reputation for apathy.

Liza Mundy: A good point. In my article, Robert Putman, of Harvard, points out that another factor in Obama's appeal is that he is not identified with the culture wars; he feels post-sixties. Then again, what you said about the voting patterns of younger voters is also true. The support may be there, but what about the votes?

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Atlanta Ga: Liza Mundy: Well, of course people don't ONLY vote race or gender, but in a situation like this one, don't you think race or gender might at least somewhat enter a voter's thinking? As factors among many? Are you suggesting they are entirely irrelevant?

This is exactly the type of thinking that got us where we are today.

While these things may enter into our thinking, The most important thing is where candidates stand on the issues! What will they do in office. I don't care what the race or gender or who would be the most fun to have a beer with! I care greatly about what they will do once elected.

Liza Mundy: Okay, okay, you win! Race, gender: irrelevant!

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New York, NY: Like most Democrats I was electrified by Obama's speech at the 2004 election. I've had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak in a small group (before he announced his candidacy). I was taken with his calm, intelligent manner but lately I've found myself uncomfortable with his attacks on Hillary Clinton. She's not my candidate (I'm for Edwards) but there is something patronizing about his attacks on her that doesn't sit right with me. Rather than reflecting well on him they seem intemperate and make me reflect on his extreme hurry and ambition. Maybe it's because I'm one of those despised "baby boomers" or maybe it's because I believe baby boomer to be a dishonest construct (I'm 54 and I feel like 60 year olds were raised in another much older generation than me). In any case, I don't like the snarkiness and I don't like the ageism.

Liza Mundy: Since we are running out of time and there are a lot of comments, I will post some, like these, without gloss.

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Boston, Mass: I have to disagree with the poster who said that race/gender would be a negative choice rather than a positive. I'm a white, 26-year-old woman. I'm leaning towards Obama, because I like his fresh approach. But there's a part of me that wants to vote for Hillary, solely because she's a woman and finally breaking that barrier and having a female president would be an enormous advancement. I still haven't decided, though.

Liza Mundy: Okay, okay. Race, gender: relevant!

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Bowie, Md: Re: "Black Enough"

Don't polls show there is a VERY big difference about what being black means to the descendants of former slaves and Jim Crow victims as compared to the children of recent immigrants (which Obama is)?

We can debate at length how big a deterrent to success blackness is per se, but people of color whose families don't have a long history of victimization at least perceive it very differently.

Liza Mundy: Good point. I do think it's useful to remember that the immmigrant factor also comes into play: Obama's ties to another country, another continent, are fresh and recente and very real, and this does give him ties to another huge portion of our population, that of first and second-generation Americans.

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Kenya,East africa.: comment:

If United states is serious in leading the world from the front, the issue of race,should be done away with and barrack obama should be voted in white house now because US needs some body who can unite US and the rest of the world.

US ,Should show example, the world is watching what is this about race,that is outweighing this guys top credentials.

Liza Mundy: I love the internet and the fact that readers in Africa are able to read and react to Washington Post profiles the day (or day after) they come out. Thank you for your comment.

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Washington, DC: I believe that your first questioner's focus upon race in

understanding the relationship between the senator and

the African-American community is misplaced. The

unease which some black commentators have with him is

that they suspect he might not be African-American

enough.

African-Americans understand themselves to be the

children of American slavery and the subsequent century

of segregation, discrimination and oppression which

followed emancipation to create a distinct ethnicity and

culture. While many Americans recognize a myriad of

cultural differences between and among European

immigrants and white Americans, they tend to ignore

important cultural differences among "black" Americans.

Senator Obama might have come to understand and, in

some ways identify with African American culture, but

then, so might Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or anyone

else for that matter.

Liza Mundy: Point well made.

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Baltimore, MD: In an era where you had little information about a candidate besides party affiliation and ethnicity, it was easy to vote for someone because you belonged to the same 'group' - black, woman, Polish, whatever. Nowadays, even if you're not paying attention, it's dead easy to have more information in a twelve second google about a candidate than an investigative reporter might find in three months, twenty years ago. Might this reduce the amount of identity voting that occurs?

Liza Mundy: Great question: an excellent study to be done by a political scientist, no?

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Have you considered running for office?:...you have the "flip-flop" to appease the audience down pat (smile)

Liza Mundy: Okay, okay. Race, gender: irrelevant!

Liza Mundy: Okay, okay. Race, gender: relevant!

Liza Mundy: Yes, I do! Actually, it's interesting to see how this question--how much do race and gender influence voting patterns---is emerging as the major theme of the discussion. I welcome the discussion. Never before have we had a national election that raises this question quite so powerfully, I think. It's a good dicussion to have.

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Boston, Mass: Loved your article. Just a comment on how racially naive we are (okay, -- I am -- ).

Everytime I heard the "not black enough" comment about Obama, I assumed it meant that he didn't use what you referred to as the "King cadence", etc. I had NO idea it was based on him not being a descendant of slaves. I like to think of myself as one of those overeducated Northeast liberals...I now realize that I am one of those clueless white folk who will just never "get it".

Liza Mundy: Well, it's a complex issue, and I don't think your understanding was naive. Debra Dickerson really spells it out in an interesting piece on Salon, if you want further discussion.

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black enough: While I get the cultural differences between those whose ancestry is rooted in slavery and segregation, and those whose African heritage of a newer variety, I'd like to remind people that this distinction was not visible every time Obama has walked down the street, when he was in school, at work, etc. To say he has not had the "African American" experience is, to me, preposterous.

Liza Mundy: Yes, that is his own argument: the idea that he feels his African American status every time he hails a cab, or tries to.

Thank you, everybody, for your comments; I enjoyed the discussion and learned from it. I apologize to those whose comments I was not able to get to. In the coming months, in many Post chat venues, there should be plenty more forums for expressing your views. Please join them! Thank you--Liza Mundy

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Race, gender, relevant: I do believe that both his race and her gender are ultimately more of a negative than a positive in terms of how hard it will be to get elected. Sure, both are positives to many people, I just think they're negatives to more.

And of course, the outcome I most want from the election is the best president we can get for the country.

But, regardless of all that, I think that having, for the first time, serious presidential candidates who are fenale and non-white will be an overwhelmingly positive thing for the country--whether or not one of them wins. (and by "serious", I mean with a serious chance of winning. I'm not being derogatory to previous candidates, but none have ever really been contenders.) Once we get used to the idea that a woman or a black man -can- be elected president, it becomes less and less of a negative in the future. And I don't think there's any doubt that either one of them -can- be president.

Liza Mundy: Actually, I'm also going to post this one, and one more, as intersting summaries.

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RE: New York, NY: is a baby boomer. I'm generation X. The day that the Baby Boomer perspective will not dominate the U.S. is here. Snarkiness doesn't bother me and many like me.

Liza Mundy: So: the future is here, and it is snarky. Well, we are at least forewarned.

Thanks, all.

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