Obama's Struggle With Black America

11/08/2007 03:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The conventional wisdom was simple: Senator Barack Obama would trounce his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in the Black community. His youth, vitality, and freshness, coupled with his call for greater unity in the nation, suggests he has a legitimate chance to win, thereby energizing Black voters in a way unseen since Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign for the nomination. This view, coupled with his phenomenal fundraising and stubborn ambivalence about Senator Hilary Clinton's electability gave many hope that Blacks would flood ballot boxes across the country and push him over the top.

The reality, however, is beginning to set in and it's not pretty: Obama is beginning to look more like Howard Dean in 2003 rather than the rock star politician with the promise to remake American politics. Yes, he's doing very well in the polls and has raised a ridiculous amount of money; his third-quarter 2007 total was $78.9 million. However, the emerging reality is that he won't win the nomination next year. The phenomenon of 2007 likely won't win the prize in 2008.

And he can't count on Black America to lead him to the nomination.

A recently released CNN poll shows that Obama is not being supported by Black America. Indeed, Obama's support among Black Democrats, never what many hoped for, is actually in decline. Thirty-three percent of Black Democrats indicated their support for Obama in the poll, a three point decline from a similar poll in April.

While the poll had a slightly higher than usual margin for error, the numbers tell an unfortunate truth for Obama: Black women aren't giving him the love. Only 25 percent of Black Democratic women polled indicated they would vote for Obama; 46 percent of Black Democratic men concur. He's trending downward at the same time his primary challenger for the nomination, Clinton, is beginning to take off with Blacks. The same poll showed Clinton favored by 57 percent of Blacks polled. Particularly notable is the support she is receiving among Black women: a whopping 68 percent are going with Clinton.

There are a number of reasons why Black America hasn't warmed to Obama, but two warrant particular attention. First, there is a worrisome concern that has been circulating among Black activists and politicos since his campaign launch that he has few, if any, African Americans in positions of authority in his campaign. His team, led by Chicago-based consultant David Axelrod, doesn't have a Donna Brazile-like leader whom Black America can see and embrace. Further, the campaign strategy, to this point, has led some African Americans to scratch their heads in disbelief that Obama isn't engaging the Black community to the extent that he should. He doesn't have to spend a disproportionate amount of time courting Black voters, but he does have to do more than he has.

Second, he's shown no proclivity to speak forcefully on issues of unique importance to Black America. His relative silence on Jena 6 was duly noted by Black activists. His conservative, de-racialized approach to campaigning is understandable -- he doesn't want to run the risk of alienating White supporters who might recoil from forceful discussions of racial issues. It's clear that he isn't inspiring the volume of loyalty from Blacks necessary to fuel his candidacy. That's unfortunate because, his base, Black America, is craving for leadership and his silence and stylistic conservatism may be disappointing to many Black voters.

Black America too often holds Black candidates to an unfair standard of racial solidarity and purity. Most African Americans want identifiable, overt Blackness in their Black candidates. That is, of course, a recipe for electoral failure in statewide and national contests and Black Americans are slowing and grudgingly coming to grips with this political reality. They want Obama to be "blacker," but he can only be as "Black" as Whites will allow him to be. Whites want to support Black candidates, but only those they see as "safe." Black candidates deemed "scary" may have the same political positions as Obama, but can't come close to a nomination. Obama's dilemma in this regard is clear, but he has to figure it out very soon or he will be spending the early spring of 2008 putting salve on his ego, wondering what happened, and preparing to endorse Hillary Clinton for President.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently published book Republicans and the Black Vote.