Monday, January 29, 2007

Black Voters May Not Support Barack Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson argues in the Christian Science Monitor today that black voters are not likely to support Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency in 2008. Here's Hutchinson's introduction:

Political interests trump race. That's the hard lesson likely 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama will soon learn. Those who think black voters will automatically support one of their own need to think again. Recent history proves that point.

A survey in January 1996 showed that the so-called black president, Bill Clinton, nosed out Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in popularity among blacks. Eight years later, when Al Sharpton made his presidential foray in the South Carolina Democratic primary, he barely nudged out eventual Democratic presidential contender John Kerry among black voters. State and national black leaders put their muscle behind Senator Kerry or John Edwards.

In the 2006 midterm elections, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, pro football great Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele – all Republicans – banked heavily on getting black voter support to beat their white Democratic opponents in state races. They failed miserably.

Blacks were enraptured with President Clinton and have supported white Democrats for good reason. They believed these seasoned politicians would deliver on their promise to fight for jobs, education, and healthcare. And they either held office or were good bets to win. Interests and electability trumped color.

The same rules apply to Senator Obama. Blacks may puff their chests with pride at the prospect of him breaking racial barriers, but they'll still judge him on two crucial questions. Can he deliver on bread and butter issues? And can he win?

The second is critical. Many blacks are leery that he's a media-created flash in the pan, and will wilt under the campaign's intense glare. Most black voters desperately want to end Republican White House rule. But that doesn't mean they'll support just any Democrat. It's got to be a Democrat with whom they feel comfortable.

In the eyes of many blacks, Obama departs from past black presidential contenders such as Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton. They were readily identifiable, urban-bred, African-Americans who spoke out boldly on civil rights, poverty, and economic injustice. On the other hand, the racially mixed, Harvard-trained Obama, as the so-called postracial candidate, has soft-pedaled these issues. It's no accident that his appeal among whites seems stronger so far than among blacks.
Read the whole thing. Hutchinson goes on about how Hillary Clinton and, especially, John Edwards satisfy the voting interests of African-Americans. He also notes that Obama's a political newcomer, and that the first-term Senator has achieved little substantive policy successes during his time in office.

All true, of course. Yet Hutchinson's really talking about fundamental redistributive issue positions black voters want in the presidential candidates. Obama's famous for his 2004 Democratic Convention speech demanding more personal responsibility from individuals in American public life. This theme is a perennial American value, but historically black political leaders -- like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, mentioned by Hutchinson -- have been much more inclined to focus on black victimhood and the accumulated disadvantages from which blacks are arguably entitled to compensatory treatment from government. Such things like continued affirmative action and generous social welfare benefits for the black poor are those policies to which Hutchinson refers as "black interests." Such policy themes have been staples of the Democratic Party platform for decades, and it's time the party moves away the old-line liberal positions to a more modern version of equality of opportunity and personal achievement.

In a recent post I spoke of the current black leadership's "Blood of Martyrs" strategy, citing Juan Williams new book, Enough. I noted there that this trend in grievance politics is debilitating to black advancement, and the message of hard work and individual effort needs to become the rallying theme of a new black movement toward greater upward mobility. So far, in this current presidential campaign, Barack Obama hasn't laid out a compelling theme to that effect. But based on his past speeches and pronouncements, his pragmatically moderate approach to personal versus governmental responsibility may indeed be the message black voters need.

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