Respond to this Article November 2004

The Great Black Hope

What's riding on Barack Obama?

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

Cory Booker was feeling good. The one time Newark, N.J., mayoral candidate had just given a widely lauded speech at a youth vote event at the Democratic convention in Boston. The party's kingmakers and talent scouts, who had taken an interest in the career of this young, handsome African-American Rhodes scholar during his campaign two years ago were thrilled to see him, and eager to game out with him how Booker might win his next run. "Operatives, glad-handers, and hacks," Booker recalled happily. When he talked to men and particularly women, they had a glimmer of awe in their eyes, as if a conversation with Booker might be a remembered event, something they'd someday recount for their kids. He could feel his head swelling, but it was okay to let your head swell sometimes, for a moment or two. And now here were two more excited white women, mouths open, and ready to gush. Booker leaned back and smiled his big, easy smile, and one of the women stuck out her hand… "I just wanted to congratulate you on your speech," she said. "It was so stirring—Mr. Obama."

"My head," Booker told me recently, compressing his hands to mimic a vice, "returned to its present size." Beyond sharing light skin, Barack Obama and Cory Booker look nothing alike. Obama, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Illinois, is rail-thin, with short, Brillo-like hair; his precise features and scrawny neck make him look like a bobblehead doll. Booker, who was an all-Pac Ten tight-end, is thick and broad-shouldered, with a clean-shaven head. Obama is reserved, rhetorically smooth and on message; Booker comes across as more eager, less experienced, and a little rougher around the edges. But the women's confusion wasn't just another embarrassing example of whites being unable to tell one black guy from another, or the more forgivable mistake arising from the fact that on that night, everyone at the convention was dying to meet Obama, the keynote speaker. For despite their physical differences, Booker and Obama share something fundamental: They are black people whom white Americans can actually picture being president.

Booker has been told he might someday be the first black president since he was in grade school. He was raised in Harrington Park, N.J., the kind of well-off suburb where high-achieving, Ivy-bound students were the norm, and where it wasn't uncommon for teachers to wonder if a particular student at the top of his class might someday be president. Most years they wondered if they might have the first Jewish president or the first woman president on their hands; Cory's year, it was the first black president. Booker went to Stanford, then to Oxford; while there, he ran the L'Chaim Society, the Jewish students' organization, just because he was interested. (This fact still features prominently in his campaign literature.) After Oxford, Booker went to Yale Law, but rather than live in New Haven, chose to commute each day from a run-down housing project in Newark, a mostly-black, heap-of-junk port city in which Booker had never lived. "It's hard to not feel some responsibility towards the community," Booker told me, "like my generation should move things forward."

After winning a seat on the Newark City Council, and then a second term, Booker decided to run for mayor. Like many New Jersey politicians, Booker began to work the standard New York fundraising circuit. New York was wowed. "Cory was the easiest person I've ever had to raise money for," remembers R. Boykin Curry IV, a veteran Manhattan money manager and a Democrat, but the kind of centrist Democrat who thinks Bill Clinton sold out to the left. A friend had invited him to a Booker event at a local bar; he met the politician, and his knees began to buckle. "He is talking about school choice, about taking this city that's in absolutely abysmal shape and restoring it to its glory, and he's talking about models of urban renewal from Indianapolis to what Giuliani did—he absolutely got it, he got the way cities have to move into the modern world," Curry told me. "There's a black politician speaking to you, and you can't get out of your mind that he's as charismatic and clever as Clinton, and at once you're jealous you're not him and you think, my God, I've got to do everything I can to get this guy elected." A fever was building. Time profiled Booker; "CBS Evening News" did, too. Though Booker was still only a councilman in America's 63rd largest city, Democratic fundraisers and operatives were also talking about a future White House bid; The New York Times said he was "regularly referred to as someone who will end up the first black President of the United States."

Then Booker lost. His opponent, incumbent Newark mayor Sharpe James told newspapers and television during the campaign that he didn't believe Booker was black enough to be mayor of Newark, and the incumbent's campaign was accused of spreading rumors that Booker was Jewish. (Flyers appeared in Newark's wards depicting the Rhodes scholar with a stretched, Semitic nose). A veteran machine pol, James also worked his base to the bone, cornering the union endorsements and playing up his generous patronage in a city where government is the biggest employer. He effectively portrayed Booker as too brainy, too earnest, and too babe-in-the-woods to play political hardball in a place like Newark—a figment of some white guy's dream, not a guy you could count on when the bus drivers threatened to strike. Booker lost by 3,000 votes, out of 53,000 cast. The candidate has since quit the city council, though he still lives in the housing project. Booker has set up a law firm on the top floor of the tallest building in Newark, looking out over a city of run-down rowhouses. The office also holds his campaign headquarters: Booker is running against James again, with the election two years away.

The feeling of rapture that Booker inspired has come to define a whole line of African-American politicians who have been touted as the next first black president. There was the excitement surrounding then-Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, a Korean War hero and budget-balancing moderate, when he launched his brief presidential run in 1991. There was the widespread clamor during the mid- and late-1990s for retired Gen. Colin Powell to run for president. And there was the boomlet of enthusiasm during the last few years—albeit mostly limited to Washington insiders—for Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D-Tenn.), the handsome, green-eyed "Blue Dog" Democrat, which culminated in his ill-fated bid to become House Minority Leader.

It is often said that America isn't ready for a black president. And it is true that most of today's most prominent African-American politicians would have a hard time winning large numbers of white votes, both because of lingering racial resentments and a sense among whites that black politicians don't necessarily share their values and interests. Yet there are a few black politicians for whom their race isn't a ball-and-chain, but a jet engine—the feature that launches them into stardom. For all of Colin Powell's gifts as a soldier and diplomat, he probably would not consistently rank as the most admired public official in America if he were white. For all of Obama's brilliance and eloquence, it is hard to imagine that he would be a national figure at this early stage of his career, if not for his African father.

For this small group of black politicians, race has been an advantage because whites see in them confirmation that America, finally, is working. Blacks, after all, aren't just any minority, the moral equivalent of Asian-Pacific Islanders but six times the size. They are the victims of much of our country's most vicious oppression, the cause of our deepest historical divisions, the stubborn counter-example that suggests our system isn't as fair or just as we would like it to be. The act of redressing these injustices has absorbed much of the political and emotional energy in America for 150 years. And while all Americans can take some pride in what racial progress African Americans have made in recent years, what whites—and indeed blacks—really want is for the whole awful nightmare behind them. The ultimate proof that we have finally done so would be for a black person to be elected president of the United States. In Barack Obama or Colin Powell, whites, giddily, begin to see not only figures who can command both white and black votes but also the promise of a real racial unity. Their candidacies are thrilling because they carry with them the notion that the symbolic gap between the races may be beginning to close.

The handful of black politicians who tap this vein of political yearning share certain qualities. They have all been highly successful within the post-war institutions that have done the most to integrate American society and help develop black leaders: the U.S. military (Wilder and Powell) and elite universities (Booker, Ford, and Obama). Consequently, all give off the sense that they have transcended traditional racial categories, by signaling in their speech and demeanor, their personal narratives and career achievements, that they fully share in the culture and values of mainstream America; they are able to transcend race through the simple fact of their class. Just as importantly, they also transcend ideology by declaring with their rhetoric and policy positions a self-conscious independence from the conventional politics of their parties.

To require that politicians transcend both race and ideology is, of course, an almost impossible standard, and one that white politicians needn't meet at all. That may explain why each of these African-American figures share another quality, one with echoes of the debate over affirmative action—a sense that the ferocious political appetite for their candidacies has pushed them into something that they're not quite ready for. That's certainly the private fear of many of Obama's most passionate admirers. "As wonderful as Barack is, the one thing you wonder is if we haven't made him out to be something more than it's possible for him to be," a prominent Virginia Democratic fundraiser who had worked up close with Wilder told me. "So much is expected of him."

Four years ago, the same could have been said about Cory Booker. And so, the most compelling question about the politics of race right now may be this: Is Booker the next Barack Obama? Or is Obama the next Cory Booker?

Black man's burden

By the night he spoke at the Democratic Convention in late July, the expectations for Obama seemed almost unfulfillable. All spring and summer, reports had trickled back to Washington about this guy with an odd name out in the provinces, a reputedly brilliant speaker and political neophyte who was running a strong campaign in a Democratic primary crowded with veterans. He was respected in the state Senate, it was said, as a bipartisan dealmaker so talented that he could pass liberal bills taking measures to limit racial profiling and put cameras in police interrogation rooms, to prevent forced confessions. Obama's reputation grew after he beat his better-known opponents for his party's nomination; then was leading his Republican opponent, a handsome, charismatic investment banker named Jack Ryan, by 20 points before Ryan had to drop out of the race after a sex scandal. (State Republicans chose Alan Keyes, the black, conservative former presidential candidate, to replace Ryan). Finally, Obama was selected to give the keynote address at the convention. The thrill that accompanied the reports of Obama's presence made it sound as if people had discovered the Messiah in Illinois.

The television talking heads, though they shared the excited anticipation for Obama, spent most of their pre-speech minutes wondering if this nobody could possibly fulfill these expectations. When Bill Clinton had been picked to give his keynote in 1988, after all, he had been a three-term governor, and arguably the most articulate Democrat of the last half of the 20th century, and flunked it.

Yet the night Obama delivered a speech that, even in the company of the party's most masterful orators, was clearly the most memorable of the convention. It began, like the buzz about Obama had, with the thing that is most instantly interesting about the candidate: his background. Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya who left the family when Barack was three. Barack grew up careening around the Pacific Rim, from Indonesia to Hawaii, a set of locales that seem the backdrop less for a political epic than a surfer flick, before education in a series of tony private schools ending with Harvard Law, where he was the first black president of the law review. Armed with a J.D., Obama moved to Chicago and became a constitutional law professor and a community activist, pushing for voter registration and better public housing, before eventually running for a seat in the Illinois State Senate. What was perhaps most brilliant about Obama's speech at the convention, and indeed about much of his campaign, was the way in which he revamped his unusual, foreign-seeming biography so that it fit the central American political myth, the ascent from the Log Cabin, with a post-racial 21st-century spin. The half-Kenyan kid became Abe Lincoln. Isn't it unlikely, Obama tells all his audiences, "that a skinny kid with a funny name from the South Side of Chicago" could be where he is today. (In some ways perhaps not so unlikely: He was the son of a single mother, but he also went to prep school and has degrees from Columbia and Harvard).

Looking at Obama, Americans saw a political character that they'd never quite encountered before. He was black, but not quite. He spoke white, with the hand-gestures of a management consultant, but also with the oratorical flourishes of a black preacher. Joining him on stage were his wife, a black lawyer from Chicago's South Side, and what must have been the two most attractive political kids this side of John Edwards. They looked like a Gap ad.

Throughout his speech, Obama made himself as hard to peg politically as he had been racially, casting himself as a politician who didn't proffer typically liberal solutions to cultural problems: "Parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Obama argued that his party could see beyond big government. "The people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead," he said. "Go to the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon." The import was hard to miss: Obama was casting himself as an unorthodox intellectual independent.

He closed his address with one of the successful pieces of political oratory in years; its target was the idea of labels altogether. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America… a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," Obama said, booming now. "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states… But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states." This was thrilling for viewers, an attack that didn't seem mean or cynical, because it was leveled not against any individual but against a glib, divisive intellectual construct that many people were growing sick of. On Larry King's post-game wrap, even crotchety Bob Dole smiled his lopsided smile. "I gave him an A," Dole said, looking positively giddy. Obama had managed to exceed even the supremely high expectations for his speech with the most deft use of his race that any politician has managed in a long time. Masterfully, Obama had used race to unite.

Populists and virgins

Obama's rhetoric that night couldn't have been more different than that of the veteran black politicians who have come before him. Unlike the Ivy League-educated Obama, most of that older generation of black politicians came to elected office in the wake of the civil rights movement in the only way that was open to them, as mayors or congressmen representing constituencies that are mostly black. Their policies reflected that—and still do. These politicians tend to favor government spending for jobs and social programs in the cities, and have a generally liberal disposition. In style they run the gamut from the strident Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to the affable Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). But the leaders of this generation are, like former Reps. Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) or Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), all essentially ethnic politicians, devoted to the narrow needs of their constituencies, and so their ability to appeal broadly to white voters has been limited.

A decade and a half ago, African-American politicians began to break out of this civil rights era box. On the Republican side were a handful of black conservatives, including former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and perennial candidate Alan Keyes, who emerged as the antithesis of the Rangels and the Waterses. They have argued that traditional big government liberalism has hurt blacks more than it has helped them—a strategy that hasn't earned them many black votes, but won these African-American politicians a following among white conservatives partial to the notion that a low-tax, small government philosophy could solve problems of poverty and race, too. This faith energized conservatives, but was as limiting as the civil-rights agenda, keeping politicians like Watts from drawing votes from any but committed Republicans.

Around the same time, a new political character emerged, one that could, and did, win statewide office. Its most recognizable incarnations were one term Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), former New York State comptroller H. Carl McCall, and the current lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael Steele. They came through integrated institutions: Braun, a favorite of the multi-ethnic Chicago machine, had been Cook County Recorder of Deeds; Steele, a Republican who in recent weeks has become the GOP's cable show surrogate of choice, was a lawyer and entrepreneur; and McCall had been a banker and corporate boardroom fixture whose voice always had a tinge of Dartmouth in it. They were educated, successful, and were not seen by whites as culturally alien. But they also were wholly conventional partisans, captains of ideologically unrocked boats; they won office by picking up loyal party voters—they crossed racial lines but not political ones, and so have generated no great national excitement. Even when, in 1992, she was elected to become the first black senator since Reconstruction, few thought Braun might someday be president.

But there was also Doug Wilder, who became governor of Virginia in 1989 by voicing a very different politics. The symbolic import of Wilder's win seemed profound: A black man was now running the home state of the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee, from a city whose prettiest avenue is dotted by monuments to the Confederate dead. But more important was Wilder's political idiosyncraticity: He favored both balanced budgets and tougher measures on crime. As the national Democratic Party struggled to move itself to the center, Wilder came to seem a perfect symbol of what the party could become. National press outlets from U.S. News & World Report to "CBS News" ran profiles wondering whether Wilder might be the first black president, and his supporters, buoyed by donations from Democratic fundraisers around the country, began making plans for a run at the White House. But Wilder's formal presidential candidacy would turn out to be a failure. It lasted nine months, and Wilder won his biggest headlines for his weird struggle with Jesse Jackson, whom Wilder alternately embraced and accused of undermining black support for his candidacy. Wilder's policies were a muddle, too; it was hard to could figure out whether he stood with the liberals or the centrists.

That Wilder was no fluke became evident in the mid-1990s, as speculation intensified that Gen. Colin Powell—who had approval ratings of 80 percent, and who had been courted by both parties—might run for president. Powell had a careful manner, and had won a war. But, most importantly, Powell's political independence was practically virginal. When he did finally join the Republicans, it was on an independent's terms; he retained positions that cut against conservative orthodoxy, supporting affirmative action, abortion rights, increased federal funding for after-school programs and more.

Following in Powell's footsteps was Rep. Harold Ford Jr., (D-Tenn.). At 26, Ford had taken over the inner-city Memphis seat of his father, an old-fashioned populist of the civil-rights generations. Harold Jr. went out of his way to distance himself from his father's politics, running in a very liberal district as a conservative, "Blue Dog" Democrat—with an eye, pundits said, on statewide or even national office. He was talented, too. After he had delivered a widely praised keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2000, pundits and political insiders praised him as a rising political star. Ford ran against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the party's ordained candidate, for House Minority Leader in 2002, arguing that his centrist would better serve the caucus in the post 9/11 era. He was crushed in the leadership vote, with veteran congressmen scoffing to newspapers about this 31-year- old kid who could presume to lead them.

Plumbers and grandmothers

Like Wilder, Powell, and Ford, Obama has crafted a way of signaling his political independence: He tells people what they don't want to hear. At fundraisers on Chicago's lavish North Side, he tells his wealthy supporters that he'll hike their taxes. At union halls, he tells the workers that the drain of jobs to India and China is inevitable, and that there's nothing he can do to prevent it. To inner-city, he says that parents need to turn off their televisions and teach their kids some discipline.

In early October, I watched Obama give a speech and take questions at a forum in downtown Chicago, in a black church with stained glass windows of Jesus saving whites. The audience was a Chicago out of an early Saul Bellow novel: old Polish men with huge hearing aids, union-looking guys with thick, bristling mustaches, conservative bankers who asked pointed questions about Israel, black aunts bused in church vans from the West Side.

Before his audience, Obama told a fortyish man worrying about taxes that government will have to do more to help the middle-class, not less, and that limiting taxes shouldn't be his narrow political priority. He told a white-haired woman peace activist who criticizes Israel that the Palestinians are in the wrong, and then when this appears to encourage a pro-Israel man, tells that guy that the Israelis are far from perfect, too. Obama was measured throughout; he tends to come off as an expert and wonk, an earnest, hopeful policy nerd. A group of older black women asked, humbly, for vague assurances that he would redirect federal housing policy to emphasize low-rise, rather than high-rise, projects—most housing advocates think low-rise buildings would be easier to police and maintain, and encourage more neighborly interactions. The grandmas were throwing him a softball, hoping only for a signal that he was open to their concerns, that he would side with the experts. Obama was having none of it. "Low-rise isn't going to solve all your problems," Obama said sternly. "I've worked in the projects, and, let me tell you, low rise has problems of its own." The particular lady who had asked the question looked rebuked, and there was a surprised wince in the church: Did he really just say that to a bunch of trapped-in-the-projects grandmas?

"Obama tells you the hard truths, and other politicians, particularly from Chicago, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear," Lowell Jacobs told me. Jacobs is a retired plumber in Rock Falls, Ill., a grimy old steel mill town at the western edge of Dennis Hastert's district; he is also the chair of the Democratic county commission, and was one of only two chairmen outside of the Chicago region to endorse Obama in the Democratic primary this year. "Barack's got something different," Jacobs told me. "He makes you feel like he's not a politician, but a leader."

A dream spurred

The pressure will be on Obama from the moment he is sworn in as the junior senator from Illinois in January (though I'm writing before election time, permit me the assumption that Obama, up 40 points in the polls over opponent Alan Keyes, will win). Obama will be in a position like none of his colleagues save Hillary Clinton. His every move will be scanned for signs that he's preparing for a presidential run. Even among his most passionate supporters, there's a concern that before Obama runs, he should learn to walk. (Fortunately for those supporters, Obama seems already to understand this. In nearly every interview he gave during the campaign, he turned questions of broad national and international issues into answers about what he would do for the people of Illinois—a pretty good sign that he'll spend his first years in the Senate learning the ropes.) Certainly, there's a not-quite-ready quality that has dogged those who have come before him on the national stage: Wilder hadn't yet figured out his politics. Powell got cold feet. Booker, in his first run, showed he didn't yet have the political skills. Ford reached too high, too fast, with too little support. The quality that these leaders share is uncomfortably close to the fear we all have about affirmative action, the worry that in our desire to integrate blacks into our leadership, we elevate some too quickly before they're fully prepared.

But, like it or not, that's just how American politics works, and always has. In the late 19th century, the Republican Party was operating a shameless affirmative-action program for retired Union generals from Ohio. The result was a string of mediocre presidents. In the late 20th century, Democratic Party politics created a powerful market for moderate Southern governors. The result was one middling president, Jimmy Carter, and one pretty good one, Clinton. Politics has its archetypes and its demands, and they will be heard. There's now an emerging market for a certain kind of black president, the fulfillment of which will be both harder and, potentially, more powerful than any archetype we've seen before. It might be Obama, or it might be Cory Booker, or it might be someone else entirely. But chances are, somewhere in America, that person is watching Obama's career carefully, and dreaming.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here