June 13 2008
Sunday Reflections: Black conservatives and the temptation of Barack Obama
Former President Bill Clinton most famously argued that Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president because he is black. And there are those who think many whites who support Obama do so because of "white guilt" and that blacks who support him, do so, simply because he is black.
But if being black is the only qualification necessary for becoming the presumptive presidential nominee of any political party, then Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes, and Al Sharpton would have all reached the place where Barack Obama finds himself today.
Few American presidents have truly transformed America and its people. The question that the nation now asks is whether a President Barack Obama can be one of the world changers?
This question presents quite a conundrum for black Independents, Republicans, and conservatives, who fear being labeled "Judas" by their friends on the Right.
Rev. Jesse Jackson's crude attack on Obama last week points to the qualities that have caused so many Americans, including many blacks, to place their hope in the Illinois senator.
On Father's Day this year, in a speech delivered before the Apostolic Church of God, Obama spoke poignantly about the importance of fatherhood in the black community, stating that "if we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers ... are is missing - missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it."
He challenged the black community, to "instill [an] ethic of excellence in our children ... [where] we live glory to achievement, self-respect, and hard work." Jackson's whispered reaction showed that not everyone welcomed Obama's message.
An Obama victory in November is not assured. It would require that he transcend his most obvious political constituency, African-Americans, and reach beyond left-wing and liberal Democrats.
And if he does win the election, the challenges of office await. The incoming president must rally a divided nation and discouraged people. Adding to the challenge is nearly 16 years of partisan hostility that makes cooperation in Washington nearly impossible.
Obama's deeds must match his words. His much noted-and criticized, by the Left-move towards the center suggests so. This suggests a willingness to break free of liberal orthodoxy and reach out to Americans who are more conservative, culturally and politically.
Some of the nation's best known black activists only speak to what they perceive the needs of the black community to be, rather than the nation as a whole. Many have sought political power by harping on racial grievances and demanding governmental solutions to all that ails the black community.
The legacy of slavery and the horrors and injustices of racism are real, of course, but do not explain all of the black community's contemporary problems. Contrary to Jackson's assertion, Obama is not "talking down to black people."
There have been many African-American politicians who have breached racial limits with great success: Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, for instance. But Obama is the first to attract a national following, the likes of which we have never witnessed.
His very success is powerful evidence that the American dream works for blacks as well as whites. If an African-American is elected president, vanquishing the vaunted Clinton machine and the Republican campaign apparatus, is there anything that black Americans cannot achieve?
Moreover, he is directly engaging African-Americans about our responsibilities for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Bill Cosby and others have sought to bring a similar message to black America. But Obama, on the cusp of winning the Democratic nomination for president, has special credibility.
In the end, white racism cannot be blamed as the sole cause of all that ails the black community. The causes of these problems are complex, but the failure of individual, family, and community responsibility lies at the heart of them all.
Obama has taken this message directly to African-Americans-offending Jesse Jackson and possibly others, in the process. But this merely highlights how Obama is a different type of politician. Who is the better representative of responsible black manhood? If President Obama continued to promote the same message, he could help transform attitudes within the black community.
It is this mix of symbol and substance that has attracted some right-of-center African-Americans to his cause. Among those who say they are tempted to back Obama are former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Rep. J.C. Watts, and commentator Armstrong Williams. There is even a smattering of white conservative or Republican Obama supporters, such as Abigail Thernstrom, Doug Kmiec, dean of Pepperdine Law School, Julie Nixon, Susan Eisenhower, and four of President Ford's grandchildren.
As Thernstrom said after hearing Obama's speech on race in March, "I guess I'm not supposed to like Senator Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech - at least if I want to keep my conservative credentials intact. But I did - and join Charles Murray in celebrating its subtlety, seriousness, and patriotism. What other prominent contemporary black politician could or would have given such a speech?"
Obviously, there is no guarantee that a President Obama would live up to his enormous potential. Once elected, he could fall back on the usual liberal policy panaceas. But I suspect he understands that the importance of his candidacy reaches far beyond him, and that the only way to reach his potential is to challenge, not embrace, the status quo.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women's Forum and Independent Women's Voice and is an MSNBC political analyst.