Barack Obama has a problem. He really, really doesn’t want this campaign to be about race. He wants it to be about change, President Bush, the economy, gas prices, Iraq, Afghanistan—almost anything else. But it is going to be about race, at least in part. That’s the lesson of recent weeks, when the McCain campaign brought up race (on the pretext that Obama had brought it up first). The Obama campaign tried desperately to change the subject but couldn’t. Once the chum was in the water, the media sharks went wild.
Obama should take that as a warning. Race will be central to this campaign because McCain needs it to be. He simply doesn’t have many other cards to play. And it will be central because every time Republicans light the match, the press will create a forest fire. Race is just too titillating to ignore. The history of post-Vietnam presidential elections is littered with Democratic nominees who thought they could run on policy and ignore symbolism. This year, the symbolism will be largely racial. Obama can’t avoid that. He needs to control the race debate instead.
Already, there is reason to believe that race is weighing Obama down. A survey this year by CBS and the New York Times found that 94 percent of respondents would vote for a black presidential candidate. But when asked if “most people” would, the number dropped to 71 percent. Notre Dame political scientist David Leege estimates that 17 to 19 percent of white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents will resist voting for Obama because he is black.