Obama's Sense Of Direction

The day after Barack Obama's primary victory in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, the L Word (for liberal) was handily tossed about. The question: How far right must the progressive Democrat go to become the third African American senator since the Civil War reconstruction era?

"These labels -- liberal, conservative -- don't work anymore," said Obama, in a March 29 PBS television interview with Tavis Smiley. Obama defended his progressive politics by saying Democrats shouldn't be "dogmatic" about avoiding differences with Republicans, and appealing to basic values. He added that Americans generally agree everyone should have a fair shot in life -- and that winning 53 percent of the vote in the recent primary proved his message resonated with voters.

The Harvard-trained lawyer won with most Chicago-area black voters and a coalition of progressive white supporters of the late black Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and the late liberal Sen. Paul Simon in the March 16 primary election, thrashing six foes. An added bonus was support from some suburban voters and some voters in mostly white wards.

Obama focused on opposition to the Iraq war, the need for jobs, the need for unity, the need for national healthcare reform, and his background in community organizing. He pointed to his record as a state legislator who backed death penalty reform, an earned income tax credit for working families, expanded healthcare for children, a tax cut and easing restrictions that keep ex-offenders out of the mainstream to show commonsense approaches to make society more fair and protect the vulnerable.

The Obama general election message will likely stick to common themes that cut across geographic and racial lines, said David Bositis, of the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He thinks Obama may trim to the center a little as will the GOP candidate. Bositis said Obama, however, won't be running on the Democratic Leadership Council centrist model -- a model that often means mimicking GOP rhetoric, policy and appeasing white voters at the expense of Democratic ideals of active government and social justice.

Bositis predicts a tight general election with victory hinging on independent voters, who didn't take part in the primary. With the election months away, it's too early to predict much of anything, Bositis cautioned.

Keeping core backers together and pulling support from Democratic enclaves in predominantly white downstate Illinois, from former Simon strongholds like Champaign, Ill., are key to Obama's success, Bositis said. He noted that the bowtie-wearing Sen. Simon was highly respected and enjoyed some statewide support.

"This race has demonstrated people are looking for a new direction," said Pam Smith, an Obama campaign spokesperson. Voters are worried about health care, education and the Bush administration's go-at-it-alone foreign policy, she said. All three were major primary themes for Obama, a married college instructor and a state senator since 1996. He is the son of a Kenyan father and white American mother and was born in Hawaii. His campaign mantra has included calls for more money and domestic focus at home, greater cooperation abroad, and a repeal of tax cuts for the rich.

Even if Obama seeks to swerve a little to the center, Republicans won't let him go far, observed Robert T. Starks, director of the Chicago's Harold Washington Institute at the Center Inner City Studies-Northern Illinois University. GOP candidate Jack Ryan, a millionaire investment banker turned inner city Catholic schoolteacher will try to paint Obama as a liberal and spend plenty of money, he said. "He [Obama] may have to move to the center on issues like solutions to health care. Maybe looking at a different way of solving the health care issue, rather than universal health care. There's some strong opposition to that amongst whites in the state," he said.

Unlike other Republicans, Ryan has also vowed to go after black voters. Ryan taught in a predominantly African American Catholic school and had black former students and a few black preachers on stage at his primary victory celebration, Starkes noted. That appeal by Ryan could be tricky, especially if blacks with children in Catholic schools decide to support Ryan because he favors education vouchers, Starkes said.

Obama definitely represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the political scientist and commentator continued. "It's a kind of paradigm shift, but you don't get too excited," said Starks, of Obama's message and agenda. "We have to take it, and hopefully move forward with a progressive agenda," he said.

Obama needs to keep working hard, with women, blacks and youth on the ground and making decisions, raise more money and tighten up grassroots support, he stressed. A statewide voter registration push would help and Obama should aggressively court white voters, visiting places outside of Chicago, Starks said. He warns against overconfidence either in a rosy outlook, polls, or what should be major financial support from the national Democratic Party.

"Everything looks fine now, but we've got four months to go," Starkes said.

The key to the race may also be race, not message, Starks added. In election after election, white voters have not cast ballots for black candidates in line with poll numbers, and the Democratic National Committee often has not put resources behind black candidates as it should, Starks said.

Whites are reluctant to vote black, but Obama can't desert his black base in his broader appeal, Starkes observed. "Without the African American population, there ain't no progressive forces in America," he said.

"Race matters," said Armstead Allen, head of the Black Studies Department at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. He said that in 1983 Democrats supported the GOP candidate over Harold Washington, who was a black Democrat.

"Race could derail it," he said, of Obama's candidacy. "But on the other hand, if [the white voter] sees this as a way of uprooting entrenched counterproductive Bush policies, they may go for it," Allen said.

Barack Obama, a former basketball player, has considerable hurdles to jump, but it doesn't appear that he'll do a political crossover.

Richard Muhammad is the Chicago-based editor of StraightWords E-Zine.

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