One and only. These are wonderful words on a Valentine's Day card but not so welcome when you're running for president.
When they announced their candidacies, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were anointed by the media the first viable woman and African-American, respectively, to run for the American presidency. Their status as "firsts" makes them more interesting and visible. But, their "only" status begs the question: will we treat them as stand-ins for all women and all blacks? When there is only one in a line-up of candidates - no matter how popular, competent or talented he or she may be - we hold them up to unattainable standards of perfection. They have to live into stereotypes as they defy them.
Numbers matter. Would Obama have to hear questions about being "black enough" if other black people were running? Would Clinton have to prove she's "man enough" and "woman enough" simultaneously if other women stepped forward? Would we have to continue asking if America is ready for a woman or a black as president if more representatives from these groups were running? Let's face it: these candidates are being treated like the very tokens this nation has fought so hard to eliminate.
Clinton has had to walk the line between projecting just the right level of femininity and warmth, as she retains her toughness. Of late, she has battled the "woman enough" perception by surrounding herself with children and talking about how she would be the first mother in the Oval Office. On the other side, she's proving her toughness with trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lately, Obama has tried to reposition himself and counter "black enough" comments. He told Charlie Rose, "If I'm outside your building trying to catch a cab, they're not saying, 'Oh, there's a mixed race guy.'" A nice comeback, but will it be enough to stop the racial scrutiny? He is also aligning himself with the black community by appearing with his African-American wife on the cover of Ebony magazine this month.
If more women and people of color entered the race on both sides of the aisle, we might get past headlines like, "Is America Ready for Hillary or Obama?" or "Is America too Racist for Barack? Too Sexist for Hillary?". It would take the focus off gender and race and put it where it should be - on agenda. Plus, it is good for our diverse democracy. If Obama, Clinton, and Richardson continue to be our one-and-onlys, as I expect they will, we could at least try to remember they are individuals in a society that prides itself on all that individuality brings. Let's let them run and lead as themselves.