The 2006 Democratic primary campaign for the presidency of the Cook County Board of Commissioners was vintage Chicago politics.
The incumbent was an aging party loyalist, mayoral confederate and institution in black Chicago. His opponent was younger and white, a reform-minded independent Democrat who had helped Barack Obama in his Senate race two years earlier.
Both sides wanted the support of Mr. Obama, a vote magnet in Chicago. The challenger, Forrest Claypool, 48, had the backing of the major newspapers and a couple of liberal members of Congress. The incumbent, John Stroger, 76, had the party organization, many of the city’s blacks and Mr. Obama’s political benefactor, the State Senate president, Emil Jones.
So Mr. Obama remained neutral. He was blasted in blogs and newspapers for hedging rather than risk alienating people he needed, though others said he had made the only shrewd choice.
“Those relationships are complex,” said Mr. Claypool, who lost the primary race to Mr. Stroger (who never served because of illness) and is now working on Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign. “No politician takes important relationships for granted.”
Much of Mr. Obama’s success as a politician has come from walking a fine line — as an independent Democrat and a progressive in a state dominated by the party organization and the political machine, and as a biracial American whose political ambitions require that he appeal to whites while still satisfying the hopes and expectations of blacks.
Like others of his generation, he is a member of a new class of black politicians. Too young to have experienced segregation, he has thrived in white institutions. His style is more conciliatory than confrontational, more technocrat than preacher. Compared with many older politicians, he tends to speak about race indirectly or implicitly, when he speaks about it at all.
After Hurricane Katrina, he did not attribute the lumbering federal response to the race of most of the storm’s victims. “The incompetence was color-blind,” he said. adding that the real stumbling block was indifference to the problems of the poor. After six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white schoolmate in the “Jena Six” case in Louisiana, he said the criminal justice system needed fixing to ensure equal justice “regardless of race, wealth or circumstances.”
And when Mr. Obama announced his candidacy in February, he chose the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., a place imbued with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. He spoke of his work in “Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods” and of ending poverty; race came up only glancingly, as in, “Beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people.”
But the postracial style has its pitfalls.
‘Acting like he’s white’
Earlier this fall, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter who ran for president twice, was quoted by a reporter as saying Mr. Obama “needs to stop acting like he’s white” (words that Mr. Jackson has variously said that he would never say and that were taken out of context).
He added, “If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena.”
More recently, Mr. Jackson accused the Democratic candidates except for John Edwards of having “virtually ignored” the plight of blacks. (His son, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, fired back in an op-ed column in The Chicago Sun-Times under the headline, “You’re wrong on Obama, Dad.”)
“A black candidate doesn’t want to look like he’s only a black candidate,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, who ran for president in 2004, said in an interview about Mr. Obama. “If he overidentifies with Sharpton, he looks like he’s only a black candidate. A white candidate reaches out to a Sharpton and looks like they have the ability to reach out. It looks like they’re presidential. That’s the dichotomy.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Obama denied that he had spoken less about race issues than other candidates. But he said he focused when possible on “the universal issues that all Americans care about.” His aim, he said, is “to build broader coalitions that can actually deliver health care for all people or jobs that pay a living wage or all the issues that face not only black Americans but Americans generally.”
He suggested that his critics were comparing him not with Mr. Edwards or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton but with Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton. “That comparison is one that isn’t appropriate,” he said. “Because neither Reverend Jackson nor Reverend Sharpton is running for president of the United States. They are serving an important role as activists and catalysts but they’re not trying to build a coalition to actually govern.”
Mr. Obama’s legislative record does not diverge sharply from that of other black legislators, some who have studied it say. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which grades members of Congress on their support for its agenda, gave Mr. Obama a 100 percent score. The difference between him and some others lies more in life experience, approach to politics and style.
And while Mr. Obama’s advisers say he is entirely comfortable with his identity — as he has said, proud to be an African-American but not limited by that — he carries a peculiar burden as a presidential candidate: whether or not he calibrates his words, blacks as well as whites are likely to parse them for anything they might signal about racial issues.
“There is a special expectation and opportunity that we have to talk about the ways race works in America,” said Gov. Deval Patrick, a friend of Mr. Obama and the first black to lead Massachusetts.
But, Mr. Patrick said, “sometimes I think advocates want one note from us. I think our experience in our lives and in our politics has been that there’s much more than the one note — and sometimes a cacophony.”
There was a time when black politicians had little in common with white politicians. They had been educated in segregated schools and historically black colleges; many had entered politics through the civil rights movement, social activism or the black church. Their districts and constituents were overwhelmingly African-American. They were “race men” who had built their careers advocating for blacks.
Winning a mixed district
They tended to be more liberal and militant than the Democratic Party as a whole, said Michael C. Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist. They opposed rising military budgets and military intervention abroad, favored economic redistribution and were willing to consider such things as demands for reparation for slavery.
Hanes Walton Jr., a University of Michigan political scientist, said, “Once you got African-American elected officials in the 1960s and 1970s, there was huge demand from the black community about getting things done. Some of these elected officials came on with fairly rough edges because they were making consistent and hard demands. In many ways, that couldn’t be escaped. These elected officials knew that they were elected from the black community.”
Mr. Obama, by contrast, grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, far from any center of black life. He graduated from a private prep school in Honolulu, Columbia College and Harvard Law School. Though he has belonged to the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago since 1987, he was not raised in the traditions of the black church, which Ange-Marie Hancock, a Yale political scientist, says “nurtured generations of black politicians” and “that almost exclusive emphasis on race — and race in a black/white framework.”
Mr. Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996 — not from an overwhelmingly black district like those that elected early black legislators but from a racially and economically mixed neighborhood, Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago. In a state where Irish-American dynasties dominate Democratic Party politics, he sprang up as an outsider — a former community organizer without party or machine support.
Mr. Obama never fit any easily recognizable model of a black politician during his seven years in Springfield. He was a progressive Democrat who worked with Republicans; a black man whose weekly poker-game partners were white; an independent Democrat whose mentor, Mr. Jones, was one of the most powerful black politicians in the state and supported by the Chicago machine.
In his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama recalls sitting with a white, liberal Democrat in the Senate and listening to a black, inner-city legislator, whom he identified only as John Doe, speechifying on how the elimination of a particular program was blatant racism. The white colleague turned to Mr. Obama and said, “You know what the problem is with John? Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white.”
Mr. Obama finds a lesson in that moment: White guilt has exhausted itself. Even fair-minded whites resist suggestions of racial victimization. Proposals that benefit minorities alone cannot be a basis for the broad coalitions needed to transform the country, he concluded. Only “universal appeals” for approaches that help all Americans, he wrote in his book, “schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it” can do that, “even if such strategies disproportionately help all Americans.”
Mr. Obama has never had difficulty appealing to whites. In his ill-fated 1999 campaign against Representative Bobby L. Rush, a four-term Democratic congressman and former Black Panther, Mr. Obama won the white vote but lost the black vote in a district that was overwhelmingly black. Abner J. Mikva, a former Illinois congressman and longtime supporter, said, “It took him a while to realize that it’s a vote that has to be courted.”
Hermene Hartman, the publisher of N’Digo, a weekly newspaper in Chicago, recalls advising Mr. Obama to talk less about his experience as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. “What I was saying early on was, ‘Harvard Review will play at the University of Chicago, it won’t play on 55th and King Drive,’” Ms. Hartman said.
Mr. Mikva says Mr. Obama learned to campaign in different ways without changing the substance of what he was saying. He learned to use rhythms, analogies, “quotes that resonate better.” Others say he simply worked hard at becoming better known, consolidating his support among black elected officials, black ministers, labor organizations and community groups, skating nimbly among factions.
Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Jackson extends back at least to the early 1990s. Mr. Jackson’s daughter, Santita, was a friend of Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, and was a bridesmaid at their wedding. The Congressional district of Representative Jackson included Mr. Obama’s State Senate district; they have worked together on issues, endorsed some of the same reform-minded candidates against the party slate and sought each other’s advice.
At the same time, Mr. Obama has remained close to his longtime mentor, Mr. Jones — an old antagonist of Representative Jackson, who defeated him for Congress in 1995. Alan Gitelson, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago, said, “The skill of Obama is that he’s been able to straddle the two major factions among blacks in Illinois.”
Mr. Obama has also cultivated a working relationship with Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mr. Daley, who backed an opponent of Mr. Obama in the 2004 Senate primary, this year endorsed Mr. Obama for president — around the time that Mr. Obama endorsed Mr. Daley for re-election, annoying some supporters and passing over two black candidates considered unlikely to win.
“I can tell you, having worked for both of them, they are both pragmatists who want to get things done,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist and a longtime consultant to Mr. Daley.
By the time Mr. Obama began running for the United States Senate, he “didn’t have to run as a black candidate,” said Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago. Illinois had already elected one black senator, Carol Moseley Braun, and Mr. Obama had nailed down overwhelming black support. According to Mr. Axelrod, he ended up with 92 percent of the black vote in a competitive field.
Yet race was a subtext of a television advertisement widely believed to have helped Mr. Obama win, Mr. Rose believes. The advertisement featured Sheila Simon, the daughter of former Senator Paul Simon, a Democrat who was a revered figure in Illinois politics, lionized by white progressives and admired by some conservatives. Mr. Simon, who had worked with Mr. Obama on ethics reform, had intended to endorse him but had died unexpectedly after heart surgery in 2003.
So Mr. Axelrod had asked Ms. Simon to make an advertisement about the similarities between her father and Mr. Obama. He said the commercial might help explain Mr. Obama’s unexpected success in white, working class neighborhoods on Chicago’s Northwest Side, which had been hostile to black candidates in the past. Mr. Rose believes that the advertisement’s subtext, intentionally or not, was gender and race: “It is saying, ‘People, I’m a white woman, and I’m not afraid of him.’”
Dining with Sharpton
In Washington, Mr. Obama made it clear almost immediately that his career would not be defined by his race. One of the first acts of the new Congress was to certify the results of the Electoral College. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus moved to contest the certification of the Ohio votes. Mr. Obama did not join them. In a hastily arranged maiden speech, he said he was convinced that President Bush had won but he also urged Congress to address the need for voting reform.
In his office, he hung paintings of Lincoln, Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom he calls his heroes.
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has turned some of his attention to courting black voters. Nine months into his campaign, he held his first fund-raiser in Harlem, at the Apollo Theater, where he said, among other things, he was in the race because he was “tired of reading about Jena.” Then he went on tour with Oprah Winfrey, whom he had gotten to know when she interviewed him after his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Mr. Sharpton, who has yet to endorse anyone, says Mr. Obama began his campaign as “the alternative to guys like me.” But in recent months, Mr. Sharpton said, “he’s been calling us.”
Mr. Obama also arranged to dine with Mr. Sharpton, in the presence of a herd of reporters, before his appearance at the Apollo.
“A portion of black voters want Obama to give them some raw meat,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the N.A.A.C.P. “Because they want so badly to have their concerns addressed and highlighted, and they expect it of him because he’s black.”