07/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Struggle To Define Barack Obama

The struggle to define Barack Obama over the next seventeen weeks will pit the two presidential campaigns against each other, along with independent 527 groups determined to put their own stamp on the contest. Just as importantly, the battle will take place in the context of the contemporary politics of race.

On the Democratic side, the drive will be to portray Obama as a success story, an exemplar of deeply-rooted American egalitarian traditions, significantly advancing the national commitment to freedom and justice.

On the Republican side, the effort will be, rather, to link Obama to the powerful negative stereotypes of black Americans that were once widely prevalent, triggering bias -- proponents of such ads hope -- and stirring up the kind of race prejudice which underpinned that other American tradition -- slavery and Jim Crow.

Republican operatives, including Floyd Brown who engineered the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988 are already gearing up. David Mark and Kenneth P. Vogel of Politico write:

Opposition researchers . . . hope they have found a weapon to wound Obama in his own voice as recorded for the Grammy-Award winning audio version of his 1995 memoir, Dreams from my Father. . . . In a passage describing his high school experience in Hawaii, for example, Obama explains the allure of drugs. "I kept playing basketball, attended classes sparingly, drank beer heavily, and tried drugs enthusiastically."

Floyd Brown told Mark and Vogel "My copy of [Dreams] is dog-eared and covered with yellow marker. . . . I expect to use his words a lot in the ads that I do. . . . and I would highly encourage other independent efforts - or the [McCain] campaign itself - to do the same thing."

Two of Obama's own first post-primary ads are designed to counter attempts to frame him with discredited negative stereotypes of black Americans.

In a commercial titled "Dignity" the announcer declares that Obama "passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by eighty percent....And never forget the dignity that comes from work."

Similarly, in "The Country I Love", Obama tells voters:

America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life's been blessed by both. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn't have much money, but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up. Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. ....That's why I passed laws moving people from welfare to work, cut taxes for working families and extended health care for wounded troops who'd been neglected. I approved this message because I'll never forget those values, and if I have the honor of taking the oath of office as president, it will be with a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.

The side that successfully defines Obama is the side likely to win on November 4.

The racially-tinged 'framing' battle over Obama began in earnest during his primary fight against Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton's pointed comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson after the South Carolina primary was designed to link Obama to an earlier black candidate for the presidency who had a much more limited appeal to white voters. Hillary Clinton sought to raise similar concerns when she told USA Today, "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and...whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

Nothing, however, more gravely threatened Obama's image as a "post-racial" candidate than the disclosure of the content of sermons by Jeremiah Wright, Obama's religious mentor and pastor for 20 years, the man who married Obama and who baptized his children. In one sermon, Wright declared: "No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America." In another sermon, Wright told the congregation, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

In an effort to gain some insight into the historical antecedents of this debate, the Huffington Post asked a number of political and academic experts who have studied racial politics for their assessments. Most were asked a version of the following question:

How would you explain how this country has gone from a segregated South at the start of the 1960s to the Democratic nomination of an African-American candidate for president, less than 50 years later?

The replies ran the gamut from optimistic to the pessimistic.

Robert D. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and author of Bowling Alone wrote:

My main thought is that LBJ was exactly right when he said, upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, that the Democrats were writing off the South (and thus national power) for a generation. It's been just about that long, and it may be a bit longer yet before the South fully rejoins the rest of the country, but we are now seeing the long-term effects of the Civil Rights revolution on younger generations, in the sense that for my kids and especially my grandchildren race is much less a big deal in public affairs. I don't mean that racism is dead, of course, especially in private life, but it has been delegitimated almost entirely in public now, especially for the youngest cohort of voters. I think that the Clintons paid a significant political price for even appearing to play the race card this spring, and I think the same would be true now for McCain, at least among people under 50. Social scientists have charted the generational trend toward greater racial tolerance for decades now, and the only question was whether young generations really meant it. Their votes this spring proved that they did. That generational sea-change is, of course, the primary reason for the sharp age gradient in support for Obama this spring. The thing about generational replacement is that it comes very slowly, over a matter of 50 years (as new voters enter the electorate and old voters leave), but once underway, it is inexorable.

To be sure, issues like Reverend Wright can set back the cause (ironically, because his black nationalism was so gratingly out-of-tune), and I'm not saying that Obama's election is a sure thing. But the direction of history seems to me pretty clear, and I think LBJ had it about right.

Notre Dame political scientist Darren Davis, who is African American, has a far bleaker view:

Sure, there has been some racial progress and the black middle class has expanded. But, American society is still largely segregated and blacks continue to be at the low end of every conceivable socioeconomic measure. And, one can infer only so much racial progress from the nomination of Barack Obama. Once Obama was racialized -- toward the end of the primaries -- racial issues seem to stick to him more than at the beginning when people were not viewing him through a racial lens. When Obama was effectively framed as black, whites' support declined and black support increased.

People want to assume that Willie Horton is a thing of the past, but the Willie Horton commercial would work today! Please don't misunderstand. There has been racial progress, but the success of the Obama campaign is not the best measure of racial progress. My basis for saying this is that I do not think a random black person would have the same success. Obama's success is due in part to his position on the issues, his eloquence, his ability to communicate, and let's not forget, the state of our country.

A better measure of racial progress is when the country can elect a black person who can speak directly on racial issues, embrace traditional civil rights leaders and associations, and who can maintain associations with people who may have different perceptions of country.

Pollster John Zogby, in turn, sees a different world from Davis:

The America of 2008 is far removed from that of 1988-- let alone the 1950s. In short form, we have had two structural recessions in 1982 and 1991 that moved us away from the manufacturing economy toward services and information. And many of the blue collars of the past have sent their children to community colleges, public and private universities. No one dreams of their kids joining the working class. What has thus happened is an explosion of what some call "the creative class" -- 30 million strong and growing, with a far more cosmopolitan worldview and not competing for a diminishing piece of a diminishing pie of jobs. Add to this what my research is finding about America's First Global generation -- 18-29 year olds with passports who are more likely to call themselves 'citizens of the planet Earth' before they see themselves as US citizens. They have grown up in a diverse world, are much more likely to appreciate multi-ethnicity, multilateralism, and do not even see Obama as an African American candidate.

UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck:

While it is tempting to consider Obama's likely nomination as a sign of progress in terms of the conditions in which African Americans are integrated into American society, I think it is also important to realize that this is one man's success -- and he happens to be multi-racial with a black identity. There are a lot of communities in America, a lot of segments of society, that are still struggling. It is critical to look to Obama as a role model for minority populations, not as a sign that these groups have been fully integrated....

So, yes, 40 years after the voting rights act we have our first black nominee of a major party.... Obama's nomination is not the culmination of decades or even centuries of tolerance and changing attitudes -- it is the beginning, a perfect-storm-provided opportunity to 'pass go' and skip forward on the path toward racial equality....Reality has provided us with this moment and this candidate -- and we should use it to continue the movement toward equality of opportunity, of rights, and of protection for all under-represented groups. Let one man's equality be a mirror reflecting the inequalities experienced by others.

Notre Dame Political Scientist David Leege writes

My guess is that behind the figures indicating a close contest for the presidency are about 17-19% of white Democrats and independent leaners who will find other reasons for their vote, but at heart it is anti-African American. My guess is that about 11-13% of white Republicans and independent leaners--racial moderates--who could embrace Obama would do so because they are embarrassed by their own party's campaign strategy and their beloved nation's paradoxical racial history. McCain may be too honorable to overtly support the racially-tinged politics of Reagan and the two Bushes. His challenge will be to rein in a staff of political pros who learned their not-so-secrets of political success over the last 30-40 years. McCain has to keep them on persona and patriotism, along with general words about economic renewal and environment. I anticipate a goodly share of apologies.

Finally, as a scholar of religion and politics, I am watching the formation of rival coalitions based on what I call the theology of fear and the theology of hope. The former has been with us for several decades in the forces of order, exclusion, and war. The latter has been loosely fragmented among progressive white Catholics, mainline Protestants, and younger, educated evangelicals. If the latter coalition crystallizes and joins African Americans, Jews, most Hispanics, and seculars in 2008 and thereafter, the electoral map will indeed change. Many of these are the same kinds of people--socially, psychologically, and spiritually--who were behind the bipartisan coalition that empowered the civil rights acts of the early '60s.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres argues:

Barack Obama's rise is but the latest example that American is the most amazing country on earth. It is virtually inconceivable that a European nation, an Asian nation, or a South American nation could move legally and culturally from enforced segregation to an African-American candidate for President in 50 years. It is particularly striking to realize that Obama's parents' bi-racial union was illegal not that long ago. It reinforces a fundamental tenet of America's civic religion, that this truly is a land of opportunity.

Al From, founder and chief executive officer of the Democratic Leadership Council contends:

This country is a great country that has made tremendous economic and social progress in the last half century. We still have a ways to go, but we are ever coming closer to reaching a dream that seemed so far when I worked for the War on Poverty in the Deep South four decades ago. The animating principle of America is equal opportunity and the idea that with hard work anyone here can get as far as his or her talents would allow. It would not happen in any other country.

Survey data over the past 50 years show a steady liberalization of American views, but opinion specialists argue that racial attitudes remain a difficult subject to accurately gauge though polls.

A June Washington Post/ABC poll - "Obama's Candidacy Underscores Crosscurrents of Race and Politics" - noted public ambivalence.

The survey citied the

deep crosscurrents in racial attitudes. On the positive side, a record number of whites and blacks alike say they have a friend of the other race - 92 percent of blacks and 79 percent of whites, both new highs in polls dating back a generation. The growth of interracial friendships has been dramatic; in 1981 just 54 percent of whites, and 69 percent of blacks, reported a friend of the other race. At the same time, three in 10 Americans admit to harboring at least some feelings of racial prejudice of their own - 30 percent of whites, and about as many blacks, 34 percent.

In addition, pollsters have frequently cited the "Bradley effect," referring to the reluctance of a small percentage of whites to admit that they intend to vote against a black candidate - a phenomenon first noticed in the 1982 campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley for governor of California.

Ten years ago, the Pew Center found another serious weakness in surveys examining racial attitudes: "People who are reluctant to participate in telephone surveys seem to be somewhat less sympathetic to blacks and other minorities than those willing to respond to poll questions." There has been poll data suggesting the public is more liberal on matters of race than it actually is.

Conversely, a February, 2007, Pew Research study concluded "that racism may be less of a factor in public judgments about African American candidates than it was 10 or 20 years ago." The authors, Scott Keeter and Nilanthi Samaranayake, found that while

No one would deny that race still matters in U.S. politics. For the past half century, the political parties have been increasingly divided in their positions on racial issues, and that, in turn, has affected voters' decisions to call themselves Republicans or Democrats. But this review of exit polls and electoral outcomes in several recent elections suggests that fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself, and that relatively few people are now unwilling to tell pollsters how they honestly feel about particular candidates. In such an environment, the high standing of Barack Obama in presidential polling -- or, for that matter, of Colin Powell prior to the 1996 presidential election -- represents a significant change in American politics.

More recently, a June, 2008, Pew study found that:

A solid majority of Americans say it as at least somewhat important to the country that an African American has won the presidential nomination of a major political party. But there are wide political and racial divisions over the significance of Barack Obama's history-making achievement.

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