THE BLOG
08/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Race Race

When Barack Obama told Tom Brokaw last Sunday that his poll numbers reflected the fact that he didn't "look like previous commanders-in-chief," I took a deep breath. This was different.

In the past, Obama has sought to avoid addressing the impact of his race on the presidential contest, except when absolutely unavoidable, as with the Jeremiah Wright controversy (which led to Obama delivering a landmark speech about race). But here was Obama himself, at last stating the obvious, and I felt alternating waves of relief and anxiety. "Cat out of bag," I noted to self.

Over the course of the week that followed, Obama played upon that theme, more famously telling a Missouri crowd that his opponent was trying to scare voters by noting that he doesn't "look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

The McCain campaign screamed that Obama was "playing the race card," and the Obama campaign began to back-pedal. That's where the Obama strategists are wrong, I think. From the Huffington Post:

"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck," Mr. McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, charged in a statement with which Mr. McCain later said he agreed. "It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

That led Robert Gibbs of the Obama campaign to respond with this, from the New York Times' Michael Cooper and Michael Powell:

"Barack Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue, but he does believe they're using the same old low-road politics to distract voters from the real issues in this campaign."

Tod Robertson of the Dallas Morning News offers this:

How does that play the race card? If anything, Obama is playing the age card. The only faces I see on dollar bills are of gray-haired, wrinkly old men. Remind you of anyone? Funny how it's the McCain supporters who immediately jump on this as a race issue. But if they persist in trying to distract voters with these inane, non-issue ads, then they shouldn't complain if Obama supporters start really playing the age card against McCain.

That's fine as far as it goes -- which is not very far. It doesn't work as an explanation for Obama's commander-in-chief remark (JFK had an equally youthful appearance) or Obama's more explicit comment several weeks ago, reported here by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times at a Florida fundraiser in a similar riff:

"It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy. We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

So, yes, Obama is invoking race, and there's nothing wrong with that. He should own it -- with an audaciously hopeful disclaimer.

For every reference he makes to racially-tainted fear-mongering promulgated by his opponents, he should follow with: "But I know the American people are better than that. Sure, discrimination still exists, but we've come a long way from the days when segregation enforced in people of different races a fear of each other -- because they did not know each other. That's the America the Republicans still see. It's and old and withered notion of America. Today we know each other better, and so it is that we know better than to succumb to the irrational fear of bigotry."