Many people are afraid and don't know it - they are afraid of having a black man in the White House, a black family as the first family. It is hard to estimate their level - conscious or unconscious - and degree - racist or cultural - of discomfort, but many voters choose presidents based on identification with the candidates and their families.
When people voted for Bush they were seduced into thinking he's the guy they'd rather have a beer with - a "Joe Sixpack" kind of guy - rather than either of his stiff cerebral opponents. And they voted for Bush because he was an effective liar: he professed to be a compassionate conservative when he was neither - though he was compassionate for some of his favorite conservatives. Others voted for Bush because his team brilliantly tore apart all opposition, whether McCain in the 2000 primaries or Kerry in 2004.
There are many reasons people are afraid, and the economy is certainly front and center. Terrorism, the environment, and health care also contribute. But I think voters also have inner fears that they might not even recognize until they find themselves inside the polling booth. These fears are about otherness and blackness - despite wanting both new leadership and having faith in Obama. Voters may uncomfortable revealing their hidden worries about having a black president - whether to themselves or to their friends and family.
The New Yorker Magazine cover depicting Michelle and Barack as terrorists or black nationalists only served to drive those fears further underground, making them even more embarrassing to talk about. That mockery, now seen in the cruel spoofs of Governor Palin, reflects all that is wrong with "elitism" - relentless contempt for what is called Middle America.
With all this in mind, I think Obama can acknowledge and even respect such fears - and should do it during one of the last two debates. He can respond to some question about what he's learned or thought about while running. And he can say it in the way only he can - but something like this:
"I think that many people are still not comfortable with having a black president or a black first family. I understand that, and know that those feelings are hard to admit. And they may be more driven by culturally determined racial fears that are somehow natural to us all. Such fears make us reach back for the familiar even though we know in our hearts that America cannot afford more Bush policies, that a McCain-Palin administration would be disastrous.
"Well, I AM the race card. I do have a Black parent and a White parent. That is who I am, and these are my experiences. I have lived in both worlds and want to make it clear that this election is not about playing cards or games; nor is it about smearing the opposition. The stakes are too great. Our future is too important to be governed by fears and Republicans. My job is to take you to the truth about what we are facing, not to be cute about hockey moms.
"The truth is that we need a civility that does not grow itself on name-calling and fear-mongering. We need a truth that is based on facts, not on suppositions. And if you do cast your vote for me, I guarantee to do everything in my power to justify both your risk and confidence as together we move America into a new and exciting future."
Obama should also be prepared to answer McCain's attacks by explaining that he knows people want a president who is strong and who makes them feel they are in safe hands. He must clarify that strength is about responsibility and regulation. It is about respecting people who hold views different from his, rather than ridiculing them for not understanding. Such ridicule has nothing to do with genuine strength.
He needs to close with his vision for America's hopes and how we can all work together. That would be the reassurance needed after having confronted our culture-based fears.