In one corner are those who contend, in effect, that Obama should stay as far away from race talk as possible, shifting the argument to terrain where he can play a stronger hand. The more academically inclined cite the Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg, who argues in her groundbreaking 2001 book, The Race Card, that “an effective defense against implicitly racial appeals requires an issue that trumps race in the considerations of white voters.” In 2008, the most obvious such issue is the economy, the source of vast anxiety among middle- and working-class whites—and a subject on which Obama has yet to develop a strong, compelling narrative to hang his many sensible policy proposals.
Other Democrats, without denying the importance of the economy, argue that Obama needs to thwart McCain’s efforts to make the election a referendum on the challenger—by making it instead a referendum on the Bush era and its depredations, portraying McCain as their would-be extender. This faction urges Obama to be tough, to adopt a fighter’s stance, to go after the Arizonan in terms not personal or ad hominem but pointed and from the gut. Its members cheered lustily last week when Obama derided the (mindless, witless, clueless) Republican effort to mock his comments about the link between properly inflated tires and auto fuel efficiency with the slam, “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.”
Far be it from me to quarrel with either of these tactics; both are necessary and, I’d wager, right around the corner. (The Obamans are no dummies.) But they also strike me as insufficient responses to the race-fueled angst that Obama’s candidacy has stirred up and that the McCain campaign plans artfully, viciously to exacerbate in the weeks ahead. In fact, they seem rooted in a denial of precisely how unsettling the prospect of an Obama presidency is in some quarters.
The truth is that ignoring race is not an option for Obama. Nor is simply changing the subject. What he needs is to find a way of talking not directly about race or racial politics but about his identity that at once elevates and grounds the conversation, that elucidates, soothes, inspires. That takes the air out of the attempts to make him seem foreign, not one of us. That places him squarely at the center of the American narrative, connecting him to values and experiences white voters—especially older ones—can readily grasp.
Obama, of course, has repeatedly demonstrated a fantastic capacity to do just that. His superb race speech in March in Philadelphia was one example. But unless McCain plays the race card more heavy-handedly than anyone familiar with his campaign expects he will, offering up another such oration would be both unnecessary and unwise. The better model is Obama’s keynote at the 2004 convention, which had the enormous virtue of rendering accessible his complex biography, of making his extraordinary story seem, if not ordinary, profoundly unthreatening. And no doubt Obama’s convention speech will be exquisitely calibrated to achieve much the same effect. It will be perhaps his best opportunity to demystify himself for the many voters who still regard him as opaque and who know surprisingly little about his lineage. (You can bet that you’ll be hearing about how his grandfather fought in Patton’s army.) To talk about race, in other words, without talking about race.
What will happen after that is a matter for prognosticators with a clearer crystal ball than mine. The reigning cliché of this election year—that we are in uncharted waters here, without either map or compass—has never been more apt than when it comes to the question of race. In October, Obama’s former pastor, Wright, is expected to publish a new book and hit the road to promote it, an occasion that might well place the topic of Obama’s blackness (along with his patriotism and his candor about what he heard in the pews in all those years at Trinity Church) squarely at the center of the national debate. How Obama handles that moment may determine whether he becomes the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For many Democrats, Obama’s eventual residence there has long seemed a foregone conclusion. But cast your mind forward twenty years and imagine looking back on this election. Would it really seem strange from that vantage point if the first black major-party nominee—a guy with a thin résumé, no foreign-policy credentials in an era scarred by terrorism, a background alien to much of Wonder Bread America, and the full name Barack Hussein Obama—lost? No, it would seem inevitable. That Obama has convinced us that the opposite outcome is even possible is testament to his many gifts. The next three months will show whether they include a talent that would serve him very well in the Oval Office: the ability to conduct a necessary, indeed vital, conversation that no one really wants to have.
Correction: In "The Color-Coded Campaign," John Heilemann wrote, "In October, [Barack] Obama's former pastor, [Reverend Jeremiah] Wright, will publish a new book and hit the road to promote it ...". This assertion was based on Wright's public assertion in April that he had a book in the works that would appear before the end of the year, and on statements by a number of Democrats, including some on Obama's staff, that they were bracing for an October publication. But Heilemann's assertion was too definitive; what he should have written was, "In October, Obama's former pastor, Wright, is expected to publish a new book ...". According Wright's daughter, Jeri, no such book published by her father will be published in that time frame. We sincerely regret the error.