Public Eye: Obama’s Challenges

By Bob Burnett
Thursday June 26, 2008 - 09:36:00 AM

Now that Barack Obama has finally secured the Democratic nomination for president, it’s time for a candid assessment of his chances. To defeat John McCain in November, Obama must respond to three challenges. 

The first is the legacy of sexism. Recent polls indicate Obama trails McCain by six percentage points among white suburban women. Some of these disaffected females don’t feel comfortable with a black man being president, but many are wounded supporters of Hillary Clinton. 

As the Clinton campaign wound down, her advocates complained she had been treated unfairly. Many argued Hillary was better qualified than Barack, and the only reason she lost was sexism: men didn’t want to accept a strong woman presidential candidate. Clinton advocates pointed to the media, Democratic Party officials, the Obama campaign, and even Sen. Obama as examples of sexism. Former Democratic vice-presidential candidate,, Geraldine Ferraro described Obama as “terribly sexist” and warned “she might abandon her life-long party loyalties and vote for the Republican John McCain if Mr. Obama is confirmed as the nominee.” 

Sen. Obama has to mend these hurt feelings. He must placate the Clintons and enlist their help with his campaign. He should cultivate key Clinton donors, as well as feminist political organizations such as Emily’s List. It will be vital for Obama to highlight key policies on women and families that distinguish his campaign from that of ultra-conservative John McCain; for example McCain supports inadequate “abstinence-only” programs, while Obama is an advocate of comprehensive sex education including information about contraceptives. 

The second challenge is racism. Once Sen. Obama announced his candidacy, many wondered whether the electorate was ready to elect an African American president. Nonetheless, an April CNN poll found that 76 percent of white Americans felt the United States is ready for a black president, roughly the same number who believe America is ready for a 72-year-old president—and 13 percentage points higher than the number who felt the United States is ready for a female president. 

However, the latest polls indicate that while Obama leads McCain by five percentage points among registered voters, he trails him by 20 points among white men—the only major demographic where McCain leads Obama. 

While Sen. Obama’s favorability ratings remain better than McCain’s ratings, they took a hit after the Reverend Wright videos surfaced. Republicans are using these videos in a systematic campaign to paint Obama as un-American. The GOP strategy is to question the Illinois senator’s patriotism—another viral campaign claims he’s a Muslim—rather than take the approach, “don’t vote for him, he’s black.” It’s stealth racism. 

There’s no direct way to deal with an attack based upon guilt by association and outright lies. The best solution is for Sen. Obama to continue to run a straightforward, gaffe-free campaign and count on the increased media exposure that comes with being the Democratic nominee to improve his favorability ratings and increase his lead over McCain. Ultimately, voters will have to decide whether the presidential contest is to be determined on the basis of “personality”—who has the most “experience” or the right skin color—or on issues. In 2000, George Bush bested Al Gore because voters decided personality was the dominant theme: Bush convinced them he would be “a uniter, not a divider.” But, in 2008, the issues are so important, and the differences between McCain and Obama so profound that it’s hard to imagine that the election will be determined by personality. 

The third and final challenge confronting Sen. Obama is elitism: the notion that he is out of touch with average Americans. This issue surfaced after Obama’s unfortunate “bitter” remarks in mid-April. Sen. Clinton argued Obama was “out of touch” with average Americans. Subsequently, the McCain campaign claimed Obama represents a “liberal, cultural elite,” out of step with real American values. 

Labeling Democratic candidates as elitist is a tactic Republicans used to defeat both Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2000 and 2004 it proved effective because there was a kernel of truth to the accusation and the Democratic candidates did little to counter the argument. But Barack Obama does not come from a background that by any stretch of the imagination can be described as elite, whereas John McCain does—his father was an admiral. As the campaign progresses, Americans will become more familiar with Obama’s “Horatio Alger” story: the fact that he is the son of a biracial couple, abandoned by his father when he was 2 and raised by his white mother and grandmother; that he worked his way through college and law school, and cut his teeth as a community organizer and civil-rights attorney. Furthermore, Obama’s policies are not elitist—they favor America’s working families—whereas McCain’s policies are—they benefit the rich and powerful. 

In the remaining five months of the presidential campaign, Barack Obama will be tested by sexism, racism, and elitism. If he keeps running the same smart campaign that garnered the Democratic nomination, he is likely to overcome these challenges and become the 44th president. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at