The Monitor's View

Obama isn't 'the black candidate'

His win in South Carolina means this contest can be above the politics of identity.

If South Carolina's Democratic primary is a sign, then the presidential election will be more about ideas than the politics of identity. Race and gender did somewhat sway Saturday's contest, but the top issue for voters was more universal: the economy.

The fact that the winner, Barack Obama, drew votes across both racial and gender lines in a Southern state should be seen more as a result of his message ("change" ) than his skin color or sex. This victory may now help him further in the South, although all voters still need to hear much more from this fresh-faced candidate.

But the point is that Mr. Obama stuck to the high ground during this first primary in the South and didn't play the race card, even though 55 percent of voters in the South Carolina primary were black. And he won decisively despite the efforts of Hillary and Bill Clinton to subtly suggest that race and gender are factors in who can win in November. Both candidates, said the former president during the campaign, "are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender." And one top Clinton adviser even tried to marginalize Obama as "the black candidate," which, if voters were to buy that, would relegate him to the losing history of previous black presidential candidates, such as Jesse Jackson.

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To her credit, though, Mrs. Clinton did not play up her gender as much in South Carolina as she did in New Hampshire, which she won in part because of strong support from women. She instead focused again on her longer experience in the Senate and her eight years as first lady. As it is, she ended up winning only 4 in 10 white female voters in South Carolina, another blow to the distorting idea of identity politics. And Obama nearly beat her in the white-male vote.

As the nation heads into Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, in which 22 states hold nominating contests, a pivotal point has been made in the South Carolina primary: Demographics are not destiny, despite the wishes of pollsters, pundits, and reporters to see such contests as a clash of groups.

Obama has tried to steer voters and the media toward viewing the 2008 presidential election as a contest of ideas. He even got into trouble by citing Ronald Reagan's ability to win through ideas.

Presidential leadership should not be about delivering the spoils of government to one's own collection of groups after winning the White House. Candidates need to reach for something higher and more unifying.

Obama's Big Idea of "change," however, may turn out to be simply too vague as the big unifier. He can't run only against the past (whether it is the Bush years or Washington's polarized politics) but must be more specific in what he offers as "hope."

As for the voters' top concern, the economy, he did offer some specifics on how a state such as South Carolina, which ranks fourth in unemployment, might be helped. His economic plan centers on tax cuts for the lower and middle classes. But he needs to expound more upon his economic principles than to promise financial handouts.

Obama's second primary win after his victory in Iowa does not mean that America is a "postracial" society. He, like any candidate, must address lingering discrimination. But without a Great Unifier, the nation can't even make further progress on race.

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