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First Black President? Obama Doesn't Say It

Sen. Barack Obama talks on the campaign trail about his “improbable journey.” He mentions his Kenyan roots, his inspiration from the civil rights movement and his disgust with the Jena 6 case.

He offers a litany of motivations behind his presidential run, but one phrase fails to make the cut: "first black president."

Unlike his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stresses the groundbreaking nature of her candidacy at almost every campaign stop, Obama glosses over his own historic first. He nibbles at the edges of race, serving up just enough hints for audiences to get his point without ever directly acknowledging the obvious.

After 11 months of campaigning, Obama is adhering more closely to a race-neutral strategy than the day he walked on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, when he proclaimed “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian American; there’s a United States of America.”

These days, his stump speech includes only a variation of the next line in that now-famous convention address – one that touches simply upon bridging political divisions. “We are not just a collection of ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ but the United States of America,” Obama said last week in Waverly, Iowa.

When he says “black” in a trail speech, it’s usually in reference to Vice President Dick Cheney, who said he learned recently that Obama is his eighth cousin. “Everyone has a black sheep in the family,” Obama quips.

His attempts to largely remove race from the political equation appear to have aided his ascendancy, and now his surge, particularly in Iowa, where minorities account for 8 percent of the population.

Whether at the Apollo Theater in Harlem or a liberal arts college in Iowa, Obama gives a speech that could have just as easily been delivered by John Kerry.

“You are not going to win as an African American candidate, trying to be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, reminding people of the nature of racism in American society and making them sensitive to that,” said Ronald Walters, a deputy campaign manager for Rev. Jackson in 1984 and now a University of Maryland political science professor.

Obama has modeled himself not after these old-school civil rights activists, but rather cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey, whose appeal to African Americans as well as whites was reflected in the crowds that showed up Saturday in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to see them appear together.

“We need a president who can overcome the racial divides, who is not afraid talk about it,” Winfrey said from a podium in Cedar Rapids.

But there was no mention of him becoming the first black president.

“You may not hear him use it is a rallying cry,” said Candice Tolliver, Obama’s communications adviser to the African American media. “It is something the country can be proud of. It is a measure of our progress. We like to talk about what he can do for the country.”

The strategy isn’t universally lauded.

In April, Obama took heat for waiting five days to condemn the racially insensitive remarks of Don Imus.

 

In September, Obama fielded criticism from black activists for not joining a protest in Jena, La., where six black high school students faced attempted murder charges stemming from a racially charged fight. Obama issued several statements instead.

“Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 isn’t a matter of black and white,” he said in a mid-September release. “It’s a matter of right and wrong.”

And in the last two weeks, his approach to race sparked a Jackson family spat that played out on the Chicago’s Sun-Times editorial page.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who has endorsed Obama, declared in a Nov. 27 opinion piece that Democratic candidtes, with the exception of former Sen. John Edwards, “have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country.”

His son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a national co-chairman for Obama, pushed back in an editorial last week, arguing that the senator is “deeply rooted in the black community.”

“On the campaign trail – as he’s done in the U.S. Senate and the state legislature before that – Obama has addressed many of the issues facing African Americans out of personal conviction, rather than political calculation,” Jackson Jr. wrote.

The son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, Obama often acknowledges a friction with the black political and community activists who stood on the front lines of a civil rights movement that he was too young to join.

“In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” Obama told National Public Radio earlier this year. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”

It reflects Obama’s style, but also the demographics of Iowa and the country, which make the approach a political necessity, said Gordon Fischer, an Obama adviser and former Iowa Democratic Party chairman.

For Clinton, the opposite is true. Women tend to vote in higher numbers than men, so playing up her gender can be viewed as smart politics. At almost every stop, including one in Iowa Saturday where she was flanked by her 88-year-old mother and 27-year-old daughter, Clinton talks of her pride at becoming the first female president, but she always follows it with a caveat, saying that’s not why she’s running.

In contrast, Obama needs to transcend his race, Fischer said. “He has to be there. Politically that is the place to be.”

To be clear, he does take on the issue more directly from time to time.

He marched in Selma, Ala., in March, commemorating the bloody police beating of black Alabamians in 1965. He gave three separate speeches before predominately black audiences in the spring about the need to quell “quiet riots” brewing in the African-American community. (A review of Nexis shows he hasn't spoken the phrase since June, when it drew a negative response.)

In November, he tried slipping into a Sunday service at a Des Moines black church without media, although Politico tracked him there. Speaking to the congregation, he cast himself as a natural and necessary heir to civil rights greats. Allaying a fear that some blacks have for his safety, Obama said: “I got Secret Service – they’re good.”

But when Obama appeared in Harlem earlier this month, he delivered a speech almost identical to the one usually heard on the campaign trail in Iowa.

The speech lays out why he’s running. To tell lobbyists “their days of setting the agenda are over.” To provide Americans with the same health care enjoyed by members of Congress. To make sure “every child in America has the best education that we have to offer.”

Obama quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech in which he references the “fierce urgency of now.” Without saying so, Obama also uses King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a refrain. “We cannot wait,” Obama says repeatedly, just as King did in his letter.

“If you can make a subtle message," said Erin Davis, a sociology professor at Cornell College who turned out last week to hear Obama, "that is probably more powerful.”