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Obama's Balancing Act

Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post dares to explore the elephant in the room regarding Barack Obama's candidacy: in his quest to appeal to white voters, will black people still trust him?

The question of how Obama chooses to define and approach race looms large as he moves closer to formally launching his campaign next month. Although he rides a wave of enthusiasm among Democrats who like his vision of a different kind of politics and see him as an alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), it is not clear that his multiracial message can excite black voters hungry for affirmation of their top concerns.

Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton University professor who has followed Obama's political ascent, said that he may be forced to choose: "You can be elected president as a black person only if you signal at some level that you are independent from black people" -- a move she said would be "guaranteed" to make black people angry. "He is going to have to figure out whether there is a way not to alienate and anger a black base that almost by definition is going to be disappointed," she said.

Already, that balancing act is causing some strains. Some of Obama's longtime black supporters in Illinois are grumbling about the largely white crowd of advisers who now surround Obama as he gears up his national campaign. "Who does he represent? That is what people are worried about," said Lorenzo Martin, publisher of the Chicago Standard newspapers, a chain of black-oriented weeklies that circulate in the southern suburbs. "When you look and see who is surrounding him, you are not going to see too many brothers. What you see is the liberal left."

Complicating matters is that Obama appears certain to encounter fierce competition for the black vote from the other leading Democratic presidential contenders. Black Democrats prefer Clinton 3 to 1 over Obama, and four out of five of black Democrats view her favorably, much higher than the 54 percent who have a favorable view of Obama, according to combined findings from two Washington Post-ABC polls taken in December and January. Clinton also enjoys close ties to top black elected officials, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, remains extremely popular among African Americans.

Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who launched his presidential campaign from New Orleans's devastated Lower Ninth Ward to highlight his commitment to attacking poverty, is also expected to make a strong appeal to black voters. And waiting in the wings is another African American, Al Sharpton, a candidate in 2004 who is considering running again.

"If we're talking about the urban agenda," Sharpton asked earlier this month in discussing his possible candidacy, "can you tell me anybody else in the field who's representing that right now?" And, in remarks that were widely interpreted as referring to Obama, he added: "Right now we're hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle. I'm not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content. I think when the meat hits the fire, we'll find out if it's just fat or if there's some real meat there."

Actually, Obama shouldn't worry about being overly obsequient to black voters since blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic no matter who's running. If Harold Ford Jr. lost his Tennessee senate race, despite his running as some kind of religious conservative who bashes gays, he would be right to blame white people, since 95 percent of black voters voted for him. In that light, Obama's right move is to pretty much continue what he's doing and try not to piss off too many white folks, especially since the early all-important primaries are held in such monochromatic states like Iowa and New Hampshire. If he wins those two, so goes the rest of the primary, the election and the almost guaranteed black votes that goes with it.

(One sidenote, the article says that uberconservative wackjob Alan Keyes who disowned his own daughter for coming out as a lesbian, supports direct reparations for black descendents for slaves. Huh, who knew?)