The Real Importance of Barack Obama’s Presidential Run

Published May 6, 2008

For the past four decades, issues involving gender and race have typically been dominated by liberal Democrats, as they pressed for more inclusion of these groups in positions of power in American society. It has come as somewhat of a surprise, then, that Illinois’ junior U.S. senator, Barack Obama (D), is being supported by a wide variety of white conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in his run for U.S. president, while liberal Democrats are playing the race card in attempting to stop him in his historical campaign for the presidency.

It is amazing, and profoundly sad, how quickly 40 years of racial healing can be undone by a few politicians and demagogues. Yet it seems highly possible that Americans are finally fed up with petty politics and now ready to support the candidate that we feel can lead this country in the restoration of America’s integrity and its standing as the leader of the free world, regardless of that person’s color or sex. As the Democratic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, the nation’s highest elected Hispanic official, said when endorsing Obama, the Illinois senator’s presidential run is a “once in a life time opportunity for our nation.”

Since the early 1970s Thomas Sowell, a Hoover Institution scholar and author, has been perhaps the nation’s foremost authority when unpacking the issues of economics and race. Discussing Obama and race, Sowell has been very clear.

Sowell said, “Whatever one may think about Obama as a candidate or as a potential President, his candidacy has brought something new to the American political scene.” With his focus on hope and change, Obama’s basic message is that it is not too late for America to change from some bad habits to better habits. “We are the change that we seek,” Barack tell his audience at every stop.

Although it is certainly true that race still matters in American society, as does gender, neither was acknowledged as a factor at the beginning of the 2008 campaign. In fact, Obama intentionally avoided the issue of race even after winning the first primary in a state that is 96 percent white.

After losing in Iowa, the Clinton strategy, by contrast, seems to have been to remind whites that although Obama was born to a white mother, they should not forget that he really is black. Her campaign has continued to play the race card since then, with varying degrees of openness. Even many members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed Obama–until he started winning in the states with large black populations.

Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts and a personal friend of Obama, said, “Once in a generation, a candidate comes along who is committed to more than succeeding at the partisan food fight in Washington. Once in a generation a candidate comes along who is both book smart and street smart, who is equally at ease with the meek and the mighty.” Several hours before Obama made his successful speech on race, a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him despite his association with his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Yes, race matters; it has always mattered. However, if Alexis De Tocqueville were alive today he would probably say that democracy in America is finally beginning to work for all. His conclusion about race relations in the United States in 1831 was that among whites, Indians, and Negroes during that era, only whites were enjoying the new idea of democracy, and that this was “the present and probable Future Condition of The Three Races.”

When the history texts are updated, they should strongly reflect the contributions of Booker T. Washington and Sen. Barack Obama as blacks who could lead both blacks and whites at challenging times in American history when race relations were at a critical turning point. Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy is powerful confirmation of the truth of Washington’s vision of hard work and self-reliance as the route to success for blacks as for all Americans.

Lee H. Walker ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute.