Obama: Wrapped up or undone?

by on April 1st, 2008

The last few weeks started out as the most difficult of the campaign for Senator Barack Obama. But they may turn out to be the weeks in which he won the Democratic presidential nomination.

A few weeks before this difficult period, just as he closed in on the nomination, the media began to examine his statements, his voting record, his affiliations and his friends. Voters began to express doubts and second thoughts. Then tapes of some of his pastor’s sermons hit the Internet. Many political activists predicted that Obama would implode.

Instead, Obama responded to the crisis over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons with a speech in Philadelphia that his campaign equated to John Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. That speech was seen as putting the “Catholic question” to rest for good. Technically, Obama’s speech was well delivered. Tactically, it may have been necessary to prevent further damage now. In November, it may turn out to have been a mistake.

Obama is now locked into being the black candidate, not a candidate who, just incidentally, happens to be black. But despite that, and what it may mean in November, Obama all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination.

Super-delegates not to Clinton’s rescue

The super-delegates are reluctant to turn their backs on African-Americans, the base of the Democratic Party. They may believe that Senator Hillary Clinton would be a better candidate against Senator John McCain, but there will be other elections and the Democrats want to retain the good will of African-Americans. Beside, Obama has proved he can take a punch and has run an excellent campaign. Super-delegates know the party’s future will be at risk if they do not choose him.

So the speech marked a turning point for Obama and the party, not a turn toward Clinton. With re-votes in Michigan and Florida ruled out for now, in large part because of the skill of Obama’s lawyers, it seems impossible that Clinton can catch up before the Democratic convention in August.

The Clintons have done just about everything they can to derail Obama. They are now attacking his supporters and threatening retribution against those who do not fall in line behind Clinton. What we see reported in the media about the intimidating tactics of former President Clinton and others on the Clinton team is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, when former presidential candidate and Clinton Administration Energy Secretary Bill Richardson (now governor of New Mexico) endorsed Obama, Clinton supporter James Carville accused Richardson of “an act of betrayal” akin to Judas selling out Jesus.

The Clinton team will have more divisiveness to spew out before this is officially over. Among Democrats, the negative attacks are taking a greater toll on Clinton than on Obama. Still, the Clinton team will threaten. They will promise favors in exchange for support. They will release surveys showing that Clinton would be a stronger candidate against McCain. All they will do is bloody Obama more, hurting his chances in November.

The intensity of the attacks has caused some to suggest that Clinton is playing a different game: She knows that she cannot stop Obama this year. But if Obama loses to McCain, then 2012 could open up for Clinton because McCain may not seek a second term.

Thus, thanks to the Clintons, Obama is not just an impressive Harvard trained lawmaker, charismatic candidate and persuasive speaker. He is the black candidate.

Radnor has been reviewing our own Decision-Maker Research and other research and we have learned some things about ourselves that we may not have learned without the Obama-Clinton competition. The findings are rough, raw and loud. Presidential campaigns are marathons. Only the toughest candidates can complete the course. Voters learn a great deal about the fortitude and character of the candidates. This year, we Americans will have a chance to learn about ourselves, even when the lessons are painful.

Not moving beyond

For example, a clear majority of white focus group participants were agitated by the sermon tapes. They were confused and distressed especially when so many blacks said that the sermons were not all that extreme for black churches. They were confounded that black commentators would defend Obama’s pastor. They saw Obama’s church, and therefore Obama, as espousing racist and anti-American attitudes. This got them talking and saying things that they otherwise might have kept to themselves. Interestingly, perceived anti-American comments were viewed more negatively than the comments seen as racist.

Clearly, many independent voters and working-class Democrats are no longer inclined to support Obama because they now see him as a member of an unpatriotic and possibly anti-American religious group. Many asked the difference between Obama’s church and militant Islam. Yes, some comments showed uninformed racism at its basest level. But these are voters that Obama needs to carry to win in November.

Little things that did not seem to matter before matter now. Many commented that Obama declines to wear an American flag lapel pin. Others picked up on Clinton’s comment that to her knowledge Obama is not a Muslim. They used her comment to introduce the idea that Obama’s church does not seem to demonstrate Christian values. The most negative news: A sizable minority of whites suggested that, if elected, Obama would be beholden to more militant black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Some criticism was directed at Obama through his wife, Michelle. Whites at the lower end of the income scale were especially irritated by some of Mrs. Obama’s comments, as they understood them, including her recent statement that voters were “lucky” to have her husband running for president. Her statement that she only became proud of her country when her husband started to win was repeated by many. Over and over, variations of the same attitudes were voiced: She is seen as a product of affirmative action who does not “appreciate” the assistance that she received. White resentment was on full display in these focus groups.

For their part, African-Americans expressed surprise that whites were so uninformed about black worship services. Many defended the services and some blamed whites for not understanding. But they were concerned and saddened by the controversy. Some expressed anger. A few expressed concern bordering on fear.

Does the race card win?

What has happened? Quite simply, the race card won this hand. As white voters who had been for Obama realized that 85 to over 90 percent of African-Americans supported Obama, they reconsidered their own position. They rationalized and became fearful.

A majority of black and white Americans want to put race behind them, to move on. Many had hoped Obama was the man to make that happen. The big surprise for some whites was learning that Obama belongs to a church where the past is loudly present. Obama hurt himself when, in his speech, he paraphrased William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

Bandages ripped off

This is sad stuff. It is as if bandages have been ripped off, exposing festering wounds. Is there any good news?

Yes: When asked, a clear majority of whites said that they realize that it is harder to be black in America. They said the sermon controversy had made them more aware of how wide the gap is. Research for the Washington Post has confirmed this Radnor finding. In one white focus group a man said that African-Americans live in a majority white culture that inflicts “a thousand small and large insults every day.” No one disagreed and most nodded affirmatively.

In several black focus groups the prevailing mood was sadness. One man said he thought he was aware of the extent of white racism but still “didn’t know how quick white folks are to get angry.” He wondered how to bring the two races together.

Just about that point, Clinton “misremembered” getting off an airplane in Bosnia. Her credibility took yet another hit. Her campaign keeps snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Obama moved on as Clinton’s favorability ratings sank.

But we will revisit the sermon controversy if Obama is the nominee. When we do, perhaps we can keep in mind the advice of an African-American man who said, “Don’t be discouraged. This is America.”

That may be the message. Through all the years of the experiment in self government that we know as the United States, the three words “this is America” have meant much more. They have come to mean that here anything, indeed everything, is possible.

Hope is at home here.

Radnor Inc.

Kenneth E. Feltman