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Barack Obama: American enough

His life epitomizes the American dream. Now he has to show that he's 'one of us.'

By Andy Zelleke / August 27, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

In her compelling speech at the Democratic Convention Monday night, Michelle Obama took an important step toward reassuring voters that the Obamas are, at their core, just another American family. With grace, warmth, and a light touch, she confronted her husband's greatest electoral vulnerability as the campaign for the White House enters its final ten-week sprint.

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That vulnerability is not his race. Indeed, Mrs. Obama's speech was almost entirely devoid of explicit reference to race – a topic with which the Obamas are clearly not obsessed. In her account, the milestone for the nation in her husband's victory would be less the election of a first black president than the demonstration that "the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House."

Race, of course, is not irrelevant in a close election. Whatever else he may be, Barack Obama is an African-American in a country that, despite enormous strides, has not yet fully outgrown racial prejudice. And more personally, one of Michelle Obama's own challenges in her debut on the national stage was to dispel a conception of her – recall the satirical New Yorker cover – as an "angry" or "militant" black woman. She met this challenge beautifully.

But outright racial hostility will not be the major obstacle to Obama's election. Most of the small, hard core of the public who would vote against a black candidate on race alone wouldn't have supported a left-of-center white Democrat against a conservative either.

What does threaten Obama's candidacy is a form of "otherness" more subtle than race. It derives from the interaction of his newness on the national scene and his relatively exotic background. It's that combination that has caused some independent voters to regard him as a riskier choice than they feel comfortable making.

Obama has been criticized, first by Hillary and Bill Clinton and now by John McCain, as too inexperienced for the White House. And to be sure, in terms of executive experience, his resume is thinner than that of most past nominees, a function of both his relative youth and his chosen career path. But having shown unusual prescience on the Iraq war, and sophistication in building a hugely successful campaign organization and strategy, he has a strong case that good judgment should trump raw experience.