The Monitor's View

Obama's answer to racist voters

He wisely sticks with his big-tent message, despite pressure to be the 'black' candidate.

From the get-go, Barack Obama has tried to transcend race in his presidential campaign. Like Tiger Woods, he'd like the public to focus more on his swing than his color. But too many voters aren't willing to let him out of this sand trap.

Polls indicate race as an influence in voter decisionmaking, and not always in Mr. Obama's favor. While an overwhelming majority of blacks support him, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken in mid-July shows he may be in trouble with a small but significant percentage of whites.

Of white voters surveyed, 8 percent said race is the most important factor in choosing a candidate – up from 6 percent a month ago. In the Democratic primaries, exit polling in swing state Pennsylvania showed race mattered to 12 percent of voters. A quarter of that percentage backed Obama, but the rest backed Hillary Clinton.

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On the other end of the spectrum, select criticism can be heard within the black community that Obama is not paying enough attention to it. Black DJs would like to host him more often on their shows, while Jesse Jackson accuses the candidate of "talking down to black people."

Racial and ethnic minorities in America want him on board with their specific concerns. He fielded questions about some of these issues at a July 27 conference of minority journalists in Chicago. If he were president, for instance, would the federal government apologize for the treatment of native Americans? What about reparations for slavery? Does he support affirmative action at a time when the push is on for ballot measures to ban racial and gender preferences (measures that Republican hopeful John McCain now appears to endorse)?

His answers showed a sensitivity to minority causes, but he also moved quickly to rhetoric that rose above their specificity. He is more concerned about "delivering a better life" to native Americans than a government apology, for example. Likewise, the best reparations for descendents of slaves would be the opportunity for a decent job and quality education.

And, Obama said, he supports affirmative action "when it is properly structured" so that race is one factor among others such as class – a position in line with the Supreme Court, at least regarding public school admissions. Wealthier African-American children shouldn't get more breaks than poor white kids, he says.

These answers tend toward a tide-that-lifts-all-boats strategy – ideas that could just as easily have been uttered by Bill Clinton as Obama.

They also echoed Obama's speech earlier this month to the NAACP – an audience which might have expected him to don the mantle of civil-rights icons.

But Obama's bottom-line message was that it doesn't matter how many government programs are launched if "we don't seize more responsibility in our own lives" – as parents, as young people, as members of a community. "We all have to do our part," he said.

In a landscape as culturally and ethnically diverse as America, no other message, really, can work for Obama. He cannot speak for just the black community, just as John F. Kennedy couldn't run solely as the Catholic candidate.

Being inclusive is the only way for Obama to keep black support, and fight back that lingering racism among a small minority of white voters.

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