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Obama Tiptoes Through Nation's Racial Minefield

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Polls about Sen. Barack Obama's presidential chances remind me of "Putney Swope," the brazenly irreverent 1969 comedy about the first black man to be elected the head of a major advertising agency's board.

Swope was not elected because he was the favorite candidate. Quite the opposite, all of the board's other members voted for him because each was convinced that none of the others members would vote for him.

That lampoon of liberal gestures came to mind as I read a Newsweek poll that accompanies a cover story on Obama this week. It asks whether the respondent would vote for a woman, a Hispanic, a Mormon or an African-American for president. It also asks, "Do you think the rest of America would?"

In each case a healthy majority say they'd do it, compared with a smaller percentage who believe their fellow Americans would. An overwhelming 85 percent, for example, say they'd vote for a woman, compared with only 58 percent who think the rest of the country would.

An even larger 92 percent say they'd vote for an African-American while 59 percent thought other Americans would.

Of course some people do lie to pollsters, especially about race. We don't want to sound too narrow-minded, even to a pollster, which also means we must read into the polls even as we read about them.

But, at least, the trend of public opinion is moving in the right direction. A similar Newsweek poll in 2000 found only a minority, 37 percent, of Americans thought a black candidate had a chance.

Nevertheless, the question of whether Barack Obama is "black enough" to win the Democratic presidential nomination never seems to go away. It has only been joined by the rival question of whether he might be "too black."

Of all the constituencies to whom Obama must reach out, his fellow black Americans -- like me -- pose a special challenge. We expect him to connect with us in a way that shows he, as candidate Bill Clinton used to say in 1992, feels our pain.

At the same time, we know he has to reach out to white voters and others for whom race as an issue falls way behind Iraq, terrorism, jobs, schools, immigration or countless others that I could name.

That's Obama's dilemma. The Illinois senator needs to excite black voters enough to lure them away from Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose husband was The Great Connector with black folks.

Yet he can't risk turning off other voters by sounding too much like the two reverends, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who preceded him on the presidential stump.

With that in mind, I am hardly the only observer to notice that Obama seemed to be containing himself as an orator during the recent Democratic candidates' forum at historically black Howard University. He seemed deliberately avoiding the soaring oratory, rhythmic cadence or targeted appeals to black grievance that would spark applause from the mostly black audience.

"The average black American onlooker can't help feeling proud but also just a little hurt watching Obama," freelance writer Amina Luqman wrote in a Washington Post essay.

"Proud of his ability to traverse minefields on a national political landscape and hurt by what America demands of black candidates seeking public acceptance and trust."

Instead, ironically it was Sen. Clinton who showed the most freedom to give voice to black grievances. In the evening's most memorable moment she brought some in the crowd to their feet concerning the disproportionate effect HIV has on black communities. If "HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34," she said, "there would be an outraged outcry in this country."

"For Obama to have said the same words in the same fiery manner could have been political suicide," Luqman wrote. "By forfeit, Clinton essentially becomes the black candidate; it's not a space America would allow Obama to fill."

No, but that's politics.

Obama dismisses the "black enough" debate in the Newsweek interview as a reflection of the nation's state of mind more than his own.

"I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp," he says. "The narrative of black politics is still shaped by the '60s and black power."

Most black voters, he says, care more about bread-and-butter issues like jobs, gas prices and decent education opportunities for their kids.

I think he's right, but to achieve his presidential goal, he can't get completely around the issue of race.

He has to go through it -- and show the way for the rest of us.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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