Barack Obama: American enough

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

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.

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.

Still, by presidential nominee standards, Obama is an exceedingly recent arrival on the national political scene. A consequence of that newness is that, prior to the Denver convention, most Americans hadn't yet developed a clear enough sense of him as a person – who he is, and what makes him tick. This, in combination with an unusual background that is vulnerable to misrepresentation and fear-mongering, has given some voters pause.

Obama isn't simply the first black nominee. He's also the first major presidential candidate with an African parent, the first with an Asian (step)parent, and the first to have lived and been schooled (for a few years) in a Muslim country. While such a biography is becoming less rare in the United States, in 2008 it remains beyond the personal experience of most Americans. For some, it will take still more getting used to – as Hillary Clinton's campaign strategist Mark Penn suggested in a Machiavellian memo with his crass "Save it for 2050" comment.

The challenge for Obama, then, lies in persuading enough middle-of-the-road voters that, as a fundamental matter of identity, he's "one of us," in the sense of being not just a great talent, but indeed an American partisan – and not an ultra-cosmopolitan "citizen of the world" whose perspective is more complicated than the unalloyed patriotism Americans expect from their president.

Obama should speak as concretely about his love of country as he has spoken about his faith, and go beyond acknowledging that only in America could he have gone from where he started to where he is now. And in discussing America's place in the world and the foreign policy he envisions, he should be emphatic that his allegiance to the national interest of the United States is nothing short of John F. Kennedy's or Ronald Reagan's.

In Denver and beyond, Obama must continue to give voters every opportunity to get to know him – his policy agenda, to be sure, but also a more complete picture of a life story with which they can connect. With her speech, Michelle Obama has given him a very good start.

For someone who rightly sees himself as quintessentially American, and whose life has epitomized the American dream, having to clear an extra hurdle of Americanness must strike Barack Obama as ironic – and more than a little unfair.

Fair or not, he has ten weeks to clear it.

Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership.

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