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Christine Wicker Headshot

Obama Separates The Men From The Boys

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When Barack Obama told a large African-American church in Chicago over the weekend that African-American fathers ought to stop acting like boys and start acting like men, he said something only a black man could get away with.

And he proved once again that he is a man with extraordinary political instincts.

In his Father's Day sermon, Obama made big progress with three tough voter groups, and all without making the slightest reference to any of them.

But they got his message. Their favorite Fox News channel couldn't resist playing it up. It's a message middle America likes a lot. Especially coming from a black man.

The first group he scored with was the great bulk of white evangelical voters who have traditionally gone for Republicans.

Obama has a good shot at winning them in November. He's got no chance with the hard-core 5 to 7 percent of voters who are Religious Right diehards. For that reason, he's quite correct in sticking to his pro-choice stance. And far too smart to court the likes of Ron Parsley or John Hagee.

But in this presidential election, there's another set of evangelicals to be considered: the 18 percent of voters who identify themselves with evangelical denominations and have voted Republican in the last two presidential elections.

A good percentage of these are cultural conservatives, pro-family, hard-working patriots. They may not read the Bible much, but they believe in it. They don't go to church nearly as much as they tell pollsters they do, but they know they ought to go.

For them Obama's message was support the family. Work hard. Live right. Don't whine about it. They like it.

The second group is another segment of that same 18 percent swing vote made up of evangelicals who do read the Bible but don't support what they see as authoritarian, mean-spirited, power-grabbing by Religious Right leaders. These dedicated Christians don't make the headlines much.

For them, Obama bolstered his message with his own testimony as a child left by his father and as a father who is determined to be around for his children. He even confessed his own failures. They like humility. They like hope and reconciliation. Paired with Obama's strong Christian faith and his pitch-perfect use of religious ideas, it's a strong package for them.

The third group is made up of white men who won't tell pollsters that they're too racist to vote for a black man, but inside the voting booth, they'll vote for a white man every time.

Obama doesn't seem to have a rat's chance at a cat convention with these guys. They're the ones his supporters really fear. They won't surface willingly. They're the kind of guys who like to say "There are n----s and then there are black people. I don't have any problem with black people. It's the n----s, I don't like."

Could any black man win their vote? Not likely.

But if it could be done, it would be done by a black man who points to African-Americans as their own worst problem. It would be a black man who doesn't rile these guys with guilt or shame, or any kind of notion that they might be owing anybody anything for past or present wrongs. Obama is expert at that. And he was never better than Sunday morning.

And then there was the fourth group, his actual, on-site audience at the Apostolic Church of God. For black Americans, Obama's call for black fathers to take responsibility was a private need made public, a voice speaking with understanding that only an insider could have. Bill Cosby had taken the controversy out of that admonition by saying the same thing a few years ago. In February when Obama told a predominantly African-American audience in Texas that parents need to shape up, he drew wild cheers.

And so Sunday morning, Obama was a winner all round. If his admonitions inspire men to change, the payoff for black and white America could be immense. But change or no change, he was preaching to a very big choir, one that he convened and communicated with expertly.
White America can't resist liking him for his words. For them, such a message was deeply satisfying to hear. It took them off the hot spot, even if only for a minute. It was an echo of all they hope is true -- that any man, no matter the odds against him, can pull his socks up and get with the program. It was a respite from helplessness.

A good morning's work for any politician.

By Christine Wicker, author of "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church."