FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Barack Obama is now the frontrunner in Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses. According to the latest poll conducted by the Des Moines register, Obama is the choice of 28 percent of Iowa's likely caucus goers. It's a shot of energy in a campaign, which up to now, has seem stalled in second place behind frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Still, Obama can't win. Well, so says Shelby Steele. Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. That's a think tank at Stanford University.
Shelby Steele has spent a lifetime thinking and writing about race and racial politics in America. His latest book, "A Bound Man," looks at racial identity and the populist politics that has made up so much of Senator Barack Obama's political career. He's with us now.
Mr. SHELBY STEELE (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Author, "A Bound Man"): Thank you for having me. Good to be here.
CHIDEYA: So your book is subtitled, "Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win." That's extremely controversial, especially for the millions of Obama supporters. In a nutshell, why is that?
Mr. STEELE: Well, in a nutshell, there's - I think the problem is that Barack Obama has found a great deal of popularity because of what he represents to America: this idea of change, frankly, the fact that he is black, that he represents something new. The problem for Obama, it seems to me, ultimately, is that he doesn't quite yet know who he is and know what his deep convictions are. And he hasn't yet told us who he is.
And so I think he's going to go as far as he can in terms of this idea of representing something that many Americans want. But I think he hits the ceiling at that point because he can't go beyond it. He can't give us a sense of what his deep convictions are, of what - when he talks about change, what change does he foresee specifically, what direction does he want to take the country in. That's where I think he runs into trouble.
CHIDEYA: You've self-described as a black conservative. You're at Hoover, which is allied with conservative causes often. When you look at Barack Obama and you look at his, what you call pedigree, as someone who is biracial and bicultural, having an African father, what makes his dynamic around race different perhaps than other previous candidates who have been born black American on both sides of the family?
Mr. STEELE: Boy, that's a complicated question but that's what much of the book is about. You know, I think that - let me try to make it a little simpler. One of the two - there are two sort of masks that black Americans wear when we come into the American mainstream that I write about in this book. One is called challenging, one is called bargaining.
Bargainers are blacks like Oprah Winfrey, like Barack Obama, who basically give whites the benefit of the doubt and say, if you don't - I won't rub America's racism in your face if you won't hold my race against me. And white America is very happy with bargainers because that gives blacks an opportunity - it gives whites an opportunity to feel good about themselves. And people like Oprah Winfrey receive a lot of affection from the American public.
The challengers are people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who never give whites the benefit of the doubt, who say, you are racist until you prove otherwise. Barack Obama is popular today I think because he is a natural-born bargainer. Whites feel that he's giving them the benefit of the doubt, and they return his offer with gratitude. And I think this comes from his background, because he is a bargainer. He is the kind of anti-Sharpton, an anti-Jackson. And he gets even more affection for that.
And I think, again, this comes from his interracial background. His mother was white. Whites, therefore, automatically know that this is someone who's not going to see all whites the same way, who's not going to paint them all into a corner, who's not going to be a challenger. And it gives them a certain comfort with him that they would never have with - against someone like Jackson or Sharpton, who also ran for president but with campaigns that people really knew from the beginning, were more symbolic than real.
CHIDEYA: Now, you talk about him being "A Bound Man," but he is leading among women, over Hillary in Iowa. That doesn't sound like "A Bound Man."
Mr. STEELE: I think that's - again, I think that he has come this far because people like what he represents. He's not going to go further until he tells people what he wants to do. But what he - all of his campaign makes the point that white America really is ready to entertain seriously a black for the presidency of the United States, the most powerful job on earth. There's almost a longing in white America for something like that to happen, and Barack Obama seems to be that man.
And there's something in America that's calling him forward. Well, the problem is how far can he get with that and at what point does he have to tell us what he really believes.
CHIDEYA: Now, in some ways, your life parallels Barack Obama's. You also have a black father and a white mother. You've gained prominence as someone with a different version of race relations in America.
Now, you also have a twin brother, also a professor, also at Stanford who has very different political views than you do. If you humor me, role play, if I…
Mr. STEELE: No, I don't go - I'm not going to go there.
Mr. STEELE: I'm not. I'm not.
CHIDEYA: All right. Would you say to someone who is a political liberal or progressive like him…
Mr. STEELE: No, I'm not going to go there.
CHIDEYA: Would you explain…
Mr. STEELE: Let's talk about my book.
CHIDEYA: I am talking about your book. What would you say to a political liberal who says this is the first time that an African-American man has been widely embraced by white America? How dare you say that he can't win?
Mr. STEELE: It's - I'm not saying - I'm saying if he tells us, he's still -we're still a long way from the election. The primaries are over a month away. If Barack Obama can tell us what his convictions are, what his principles are, then, you know, I think he certainly could win. It's up to him now. The ball is in his court. He has an opportunity. But I don't think he - you can't win by just being - giving people a warm and fuzzy feeling.
You've got to actually tell the country what direction you want to take them in and why you want to do that. And if he does that, he's going to, I think, do amazingly well. He's an extremely talented politician, I think, in many ways, the most talented politician of his generation. So he has every opportunity. It's up to him.
CHIDEYA: So when you say why he can't win, it's just why he can't win if he doesn't do blank? What's blank?
Mr. STEELE: I'm saying, yeah - I'm saying, to tell us who he is, what - when you say you stand for change and you stand for hope, what do you mean by change? He has avoided specifying the answers to these kinds of questions all along. That, I think, is going to catch up to him.
CHIDEYA: Well, Shelby…
Mr. STEELE: I wish he would.
CHIDEYA: Thank you so much for your time.
Mr. STEELE: Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Shelby Steele joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. He's a research fellow at the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution. And his new book is "A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win."
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