A New Emphasis in the 'Race' for President Does Barack Obama's speech on race change the dynamic of the presidential contest? It's probably too soon to tell, but there's no question that race has now moved to the forefront of the campaign.
NPR logo A New Emphasis in the 'Race' for President

A New Emphasis in the 'Race' for President

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Once again, inflammatory rhetoric from an impassioned minister reaches center stage in a presidential campaign. hide caption

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Twenty-four years ago Wednesday, ex-Nixon Cabinet official Richardson declares for an open Senate seat in Massachusetts. hide caption

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It is naive, and in retrospect a bit delusional, to have thought that with the first African-American making a serious bid for president, race would not be an issue. And for all the declarations that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "transcended" race — thus, taking race off the table — we really should have known better.

First of all, we should have known about Geraldine Ferraro — or, perhaps better put — the Geraldine Ferraros of the world, who think that Obama's color is what got him where he is today. And we should have paid more attention to the rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose long personal relationship with Obama has alarmed whites at a time when the Illinois senator needs to shore up his standing with the white community — while at the same time not alienating his base in the black community.

That was the context behind Obama's remarkable speech Tuesday in Philadelphia. But it was more than simply rescuing a candidacy that was thrown on the defensive over race. You can argue back and forth whether it was the design of the Clinton campaign — witness statements by surrogates such as Ferraro, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey and others — to "remind" voters that Obama was black. You can argue that Obama needed to reassure white voters in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. But there's no argument that incendiary and inflammatory statements made by Wright, plastered all over the evening news and YouTube, were threatening to derail the bi-racial coalition Obama had carefully tried to assemble.

It's more than Obama because, as he said in his speech, it's been 50 years since the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and distrust between whites and blacks continues. Segregated schools continue. Disparate incomes by race continue. Maybe only someone with the background of a Barack Obama could have given this speech, perhaps the most comprehensive speech on the subject ever given by a presidential candidate. In the short time period since he spoke, it has been compared countless times to John F. Kennedy's famous speech to Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960, when JFK needed to address the issue of his Catholic faith.

But now what? Does it win over white ethnics in the Philadelphia suburbs? Does it alter the dynamic of the presidential contest? I suspect it's too soon to tell. But one thing is almost a certainty: The days of Obama "transcending" race are over. Race has moved to the forefront of the campaign. For better or worse.


Lynne Kudzy of Stamford, Conn.: "I feel the media are in large part driving Obama's momentum. He has won the small state caucuses that were attended by high-income elites. If he is nominated I believe he will either lose to [Republican John McCain] or become the next incarnation of another Jimmy Carter — an example of charisma over substance."

Allyn Brooks-LaSure of Arlington, Va.: "If it were such a political blessing to be a black man, there would probably be more than one in the U.S. Senate today. Next, someone will say that Obama only beat Alan Keyes [his Republican opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race] because he was black. We now know that a black man running for president is the surest way to have high-profile and well-respected Democratic leaders acting and talking like radio talk-show Republicans."

Sarah Lauterbach of Shady Grove, Fla.: "One thing I've learned from watching and listening to coverage of the presidential campaign is that it's not about playing the racial card, it's playing the gender card. The gender bias in the news has been incredible."

Nancy Williams of Philadelphia, Pa.: "I am getting sick to my stomach watching Hillary doing whatever it takes to win the nomination, including the personal destruction of Barack Obama. Anyone who could trash a fellow Democrat like that doesn't deserve to win the nomination."

Kathi Rubin, assistant professor at Baker College in Owosso, Mich.: "I can accept Hillary Clinton losing, if it comes to that, but the media coverage has been so one-sided. She is not getting fair coverage at all."

Pamela Gilbert-Snyder of El Cerrito, Calif.: "I keep hearing about how disenfranchised blacks would feel if Clinton became the nominee. As a 52-year old female, I am already feeling disenfranchised. I see in Obama a man of ego and ambition whose race has so far protected him from the kind of scrutiny and personal criticism brought to bear against Clinton. I am growing more and more disgusted that this untried, unproven candidate should be the object of such adulation, fueled by a media addicted to excitement that will withhold its scorn until he is running against a Republican. It is in part the triumph of misogyny over racism, and it's all very depressing."

Edward Saunders of Chicago, Ill.: "It is insulting and belittling to watch Hillary Clinton, who is trailing in delegates, popular votes and states won, offer Obama the vice presidential nomination. It is plantation politics at its worst."

Rick Barrington of North Little Rock, Ark.: "I have voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1976, but if Obama is the nominee I will vote for McCain. It is a security issue with me. I don't trust Obama to keep America safe."

Cathy Ubaldino of Natick, Mass.: "The voters of Michigan and Florida deserve to have their votes counted."

Judith Bloom of Berkeley, Calif.: "Would you please explain what Hillary Clinton means when she says she has '35 years of experience?' I only see her as having served less than a term and a half in the Senate. Does she get credit for being a political spouse? I don't understand."

Noboru Akimoto of Chicago, Ill.: "If Hillary wishes to use the 'experience' of being first lady in the White House during her husband's time in office, wouldn't the act of standing by and letting a million people be slaughtered in Africa while intervening in Kosovo highlight the enormous window of opportunity for Obama? I don't know why he hasn't brought up the issue of the Rwandan genocide during the Clinton years."

Roger Prescott of Ely, Nev.: "I don't believe that now is the time to elect a president of the United States who has a background of being involved with Muslims in any way except diplomatic."

Larry Waters of Tucson, Ariz.: "If Obama gets the nomination, McCain will go after him on his lack of national security experience and on being the most liberal Democrat. I don't believe Obama's charisma will last, and he will lose the election."

Chad Hewitt of Folsom, Calif.: "Does being a former first lady of a former president make Hillary Clinton the most experienced candidate? The same president who was impeached? Does everyone forget all the monthly scandals that went on during the (Bill) Clinton presidency?"

Matthew Woods of Mansfield Center, Conn.: "I regard Obama as grossly inexperienced. I don't regard being a community organizer or tweaking language in the long-existing Nunn-Lugar initiative as domestic or foreign policy experience. As for comparing Obama to JFK, no one mentions the Bay of Pigs or how Kennedy's actions (or lack thereof) brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Mike Evers of Sheridan, Wyo.: "Perhaps the populace is enamored with Mr. Obama precisely because of Mr. Bush's lack of eloquence?"

Mary Ann Price of Charleston, W.Va.: "First Geraldine Ferraro, a Hillary supporter, says that Obama wouldn't be where he is today if he weren't black. Then Gloria Steinem, another Hillary supporter, mocked John McCain for his long ordeal as a POW in Hanoi. I shudder to think what four years of Clinton in the White House would be like."

Edith Bruce of Harrisburg, Pa.: "I don't necessarily blame Obama for Jeremiah Wright's sermons filled with hate. But what does this say about the judgment of a man who says he wants to be president of all Americans?"

Joan Modzelewski of North Falmouth, Mass.: "Obama instills hope, not fear. He invites us to see our similarities, not our differences. He gives us the confidence to change our country to reflect our highest selves."

Gerald Crumb of Dallas, Texas: "You can call Hillary 'menopausal' and get a good laugh around the office, but you try something similar about Obama and the room would turn silent. Insinuations about race are beyond the pale, but it's still OK to bash women. Why is that? In any event, I know this: Hillary cannot win a national election. It's not fair, but it's true. If she becomes the Democratic nominee, John McCain will be the next president. When it comes to Hillary, there are no undecideds. Americans have had more than a decade to make up their minds about her, and they have. Men will not vote for her in November."

Ross Nicholson of Tampa, Fla.: "For political expediency, Obama has said it is ok to disenfranchise 1.7 million Democratic voters in Florida and hundreds of thousands more in Michigan. That incredible selfishness alone disqualifies him from any office or position of trust within the Democratic Party."

Pauline Stafford of San Diego, Calif.: "Why doesn't the brilliant Hillary Clinton get it that this Republican would like to vote for her if she'd only quit using terms like 'Republican playbook' (among many others) that steer me and many independents away from the ongoing partisan b.s. that has permeated politics for decades?"

Carolyn Gaughan of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: "If Obama gets the nomination, I will vote for McCain. He may be a good speaker, but inspiration does not let us know where he stands on the issues."

Cynthia Urban of Blanco, Texas: "I have the following problem with Obama: He says it is all about judgment, and yet he bought land off someone [Tony Rezko] he knew was being investigated for criminal activity. And he lied about his campaign having a meeting with Canadian officials about NAFTA. As for Clinton, she is NOT entitled to the delegates from Michigan and Florida and needs to get over it. She needs to quit the whining."

Bonnie Rice of Fairfax, Va.: "If Obama is the nominee, there will be a big write-in vote in November for Hillary Clinton. People are not happy with the press or the Obama campaign."

Here's one, from David Kramer of Rochester, N.Y., that we probably wish we ran when it was sent last summer, when the answer would have been different: "As you know, if Hillary Clinton becomes president, her Senate seat will become vacant. What do you think are the chances that Gov. Spitzer would appoint Bill Clinton?"

And we leave you with this ridiculously stress-free note from James Bronk of Napa, Calif.: "I'm a confirmed Democrat who will be happy with either Clinton or Obama as our nominee."

NADER'S RAIDERS: Lots of reaction to the Feb. 27 column, nearly all positive, about Ralph Nader. Roger Snyder of Huntington, N.Y., says, "I don't know if I had ever seen your column before, but I plan on looking at it again. I appreciate what you wrote about Ralph." Bob Brister of Salt Lake City, Utah, writes, "As a peace voter, I see no choice between the leading Dem/GOP contenders for president, all of whom voted to fund the war. I welcome Nader's entrance into the race. Now I have someone to vote for." Kee Chung of Brookline, Mass., is "already pretty disgusted" with the Clinton-Obama battle: "It's been politics at its worst, and it may make the moniker 'Democratic Party' a joke for years to come." And Pete Snyder of Fullerton, Calif., adds, "Thank you for taking a relatively objective look at Nader. I would be very surprised if he had much impact this year, as he did not have much in 2004. But it is very refreshing to actually hear someone on a national stage address issues even when the press does little to nothing about stimulating these types of factual discussions."

Noah Coolidge of Lexington, Mass., caught me in a mistake: In 2000, Nader ran as the Green Party nominee, not as an independent, as I had written.

And in my list of third-party candidates on the 2000 Florida ballot who received more than the 537 votes that separated George W. Bush from Al Gore, I inexplicably left off John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party, who got 2,281 votes.

Christopher Sullivan of Concord, N.H., correctly notes that Florida was not the only state where Nader's totals that year may have been what kept Gore from winning: "Nader received 22,198 votes in New Hampshire and Gore lost the state by about 7,000. Even without Florida, Gore wins the presidency if he takes New Hampshire. By the way, the state was the only one to go from red to blue in 2004, and it likely would have been blue in 2000 were it not for Nader."

And regarding the debate about Florida's role in Gore's defeat, Gerry Hoffman of Edinboro, Pa., also attributes some of the blame to Florida's then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris' (R) "purge of thousands of African Americans from the rolls of registered voters," as well as the "infamous butterfly ballots that gave rise to the phenomenon of 'Jews for Buchanan.'"

Finally, Ryan Hoffman of Harrison, Ark., writes, "I think it's sad (yet typical) to see that most of the coverage of Nader is of his 'effect on the election' or his 'vote stealing effect,' rather than his issues. It is no wonder that most people don't understand why he is running."

A fair point. And we rectify it this week with a fascinating Nader button that explains everything better than we could.

More questions from readers:

Q: Yes, let's force Eliot Spitzer to resign. Yes, let's ask David Paterson if he's had an affair. But let's not ask about the insane war in Iraq and what it's doing to our young people. Can you explain this to me? — Richard Foley, Austin, Texas

A: This is not an either/or issue. The issue of the war has not gone away and I suspect will be around far longer than the name of the call girl Spitzer arranged to travel to D.C. from New York (no doubt part of his program to rid the Empire State of vice). The Spitzer saga, as with all sex scandals, titillates the media for awhile until they get bored. I still argue that the fascination with the story was less about prostitution and more about (a) hypocrisy and (b) the utter disbelief that the holier-than-thou governor of New York would be guilty of the same type of behavior for which he would (and did) prosecute others.

Q: With Eliot Spitzer's resignation, Hillary Clinton loses a superdelegate. Has the new governor, David Paterson, announced whom he is supporting? I assume Paterson now becomes a superdelegate. — Gregory Kallen, Big Stone Gap, Va.

A: As an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, Paterson was already a superdelegate. He is supporting Hillary Clinton. By the way, Paterson is only the second legally blind governor in history; the first was Bob Riley, an Arkansas Democrat, who served for 11 days in January 1975 after Gov. Dale Bumpers (D) resigned to become senator and before newly-elected governor David Pryor (D) was sworn in.

Q: Since they are members of the Senate, are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton superdelegates? — Jim Sahol, Burlington, N.J.

A: They are indeed.

Q: In last week's column about previous Republican presidential contests, you write that one brave soul out of the 1,348 delegates at the 1972 Republican convention did not vote for the estimable Richard M. Nixon. Where was this delegate from, and for whom did he or she cast their vote? — Glenn Schmid, Phoenix, Ariz.

A: The delegate, Tom Mayer from New Mexico, voted for Rep. Pete McCloskey, who challenged Nixon on an anti-Vietnam War platform.

Q: You missed a couple of women in your January 24 lists of blacks and women who ran for president. You should check out my new book, We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States, which will be published this month by Rowman and Littlefield. — Jo Freeman, Washington, D.C.

Q: ... You left out Shirley Chisholm, who ran in 1972. — S. Foon

Jo Freeman button

A: Chisholm, a Democratic House member from Brooklyn whose election in 1968 made her the first black woman ever elected to Congress, indeed did seek her party's presidential nomination in '72. But the list was of third-party and independent nominees, whose names were on the November general election ballots, not just candidates.

By the way, the above-referenced Jo Freeman is the same Jo Freeman who appears on this Chisholm button from '72.

Q: What's the latest breakdown of raw votes and delegates for the Democratic presidential candidates? — Zane Vorhes, Sacramento, Calif.

A: Barack Obama has 1,404 pledged delegates and 213 superdelegates, for a total of 1,617. Hillary Clinton's delegate total has her with 1,249 pledged and 249 supers. Needed to win the nomination: 2,025. Obama also has a popular-vote lead of about 700,000 over Clinton.

OPEN HOUSE SEATS: One new addition to our March 11 list of House members who won't be returning for the 111th Congress: Robert "Bud" Cramer, a Democrat from Alabama's 5th Congressional District, who announced his retirement last week. He is the seventh Democrat to call it quits, compared with 25 Republicans.

POLITICAL MISCELLANY: Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell announces he will challenge Rep. Don Young, a fellow Republican, in the August GOP primary. Parnell has the backing of Gov. Sarah Palin; Young has been in office since 1973. ... Every member of Congress from Arkansas, including Sen. Mark Pryor (D), is running unopposed in the general election this year. ... Former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby (R) of South Dakota says he will not challenge Sen. Tim Johnson (D) this year, almost ensuring that the two-term Democrat will win a third.

TWO VIEWS OF THE DEM VICTORY IN ILLINOIS 14: Judy Keim of West Chester, Ohio, doesn't buy the GOP argument that the results of the special election to succeed ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) didn't mean that much. "The Republican congressional committee spent a major chunk of its cash on hand to support Jim Oberweis. Seems to me that's a pretty important fact to consider when evaluating the importance of that election."

But Barbara Harper of Chicago, Ill., says placing any of the blame on John McCain, who campaigned for Oberweis, is wrong. "McCain did what was expected of him, but really, Oberweis is a jerk. We would have easily kept Denny's seat with a different candidate."


April 5 — Primary runoffs in Louisiana's 1st CD (to succeed now-Gov. Bobby Jindal) and 6th CD (to replace Republican Richard Baker, who resigned).

April 8 — Special primary election in California's 12th CD to succeed the late Tom Lantos (D).

April 16 — Democratic presidential candidate debate, Philadelphia (ABC).

April 19 — Democratic presidential candidate debate, North Carolina (CBS).

IF IT'S WEDNESDAY, IT'S "JUNKIE" TIME ON TOTN: Don't forget to listen to the "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, starting at 2 p.m. Eastern time. This week: Obama's speech on race and a Michigan-Florida update. Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and me. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. Want to subscribe? It's easy, and it's free! Go to the iTunes Web site, type in the name of the podcast and voila. You'll be hooked!

An intriguing e-mail this week from the listener: Robert Wolfson of Fairfax, Calif., writes, "Thanks for the longer podcast — it's been noticed and appreciated. I've been curious for some time about your work schedule. I read your column and hear you on Talk of the Nation. Do you (and Ron) work full time? Are you called upon to brief other NPR reporters about politics? How is Mara Liasson's job different from yours?"

Answers: Yes, yes, and you gotta be kidding. Mara is NPR's national political correspondent. I am her editor. And we tag-team every now and then, for better or worse, on Morning Edition.

NOTE: No Junkie column next week. We will return in two weeks.

*******Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.*********

This day in campaign history: Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson (R) announces his candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Paul Tsongas. He is seen as a heavy favorite over the other Republican already in the race, conservative businessman Ray Shamie (March 19, 1984). A victim of President Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" during Watergate, Richardson will be massacred by Shamie in the September primary by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org