Shortly before President Obama left office, a black friend remarked to me over lunch that we might not see another black president elected for a very long time. He said white Americans had taken a chance on Mr. Obama and that he not only underperformed but racialized the presidency in ways that many voters didn’t expect.
I’m less pessimistic about the prospect of another black president, but the departure of Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California from the 2020 race got me thinking about how they had run their campaigns versus how Mr. Obama ran his back in 2008. As the Democratic debate stage has become more monochrome, some on the left are questioning the party’s vaunted commitment to diversity and inclusion. But it’s plausible that the decision by Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris to focus so much on racial issues is what put off would-be supporters.
Mr. Booker launched his campaign last Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. On the campaign trail and in interviews, he highlighted black voter “suppression,” supported slavery reparations, and called for drug legalization to keep a “racist” criminal justice system from targeting black people. The only reason anyone will even remember that Ms. Harris ran for president is because of her confrontation with Joe Biden over segregation and forced busing during the first Democratic debates. The two senators made race in general, and their own race in particular, a central part of their message, and it couldn’t even get them to the Iowa caucuses.
This is identity-politics campaigning in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and we know how their presidential bids turned out. Moreover, it’s close to the antithesis of how Mr. Obama ran. The former president understood both that he couldn’t win without white voters and that those voters had repeatedly rejected black presidential candidates who took confrontational approaches to racial issues. In his 2007 book about Mr. Obama’s first White House run, “A Bound Man,” Shelby Steele surmises that the future president was so skillful at winning over white audiences because he was a “bargainer,” or someone who appeals to whites by agreeing not to play up the country’s ugly racial history in return for not having his skin color held against him.
Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris gave lip service to “unity” but ultimately ran more racially belligerent campaigns. Mr. Obama chose to give whites the benefit of the doubt and generally tried to move past the “sense of ‘otherness’ between the races,” writes Mr. Steele. By contrast, the two senators kept racial differences front and center and rarely missed an opportunity to blame black problems on white people. In an interview with National Public Radio last March, Ms. Harris said that the high rates of violence in poor black communities were “associated with slavery.”
Candidate Obama correctly reasoned that appealing to the humanity of whites would get him further than laying a guilt trip on them. “Challengers, unlike bargainers, ride the back of their ‘otherness’ rather than dispel it,” writes Mr. Steele. “Difference is their wedge and their power. So they have no bridge to the masses of Americans.” Mr. Steele underestimated Mr. Obama’s ability to amass white voters without losing black support—the subtitle of the book was “Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win”—but you won’t find a more thoughtful take on the complicated racial aspects of Mr. Obama’s initial presidential run.
As my lunch companion noted, and to the dismay of many Americans, Mr. Obama governed quite differently from the way he campaigned. The race card was played early, often and in ways that deeply divided a nation he had brought together to elect him. He repeatedly took sides in police incidents involving black suspects. He dispatched his attorney general to attack voter ID laws as racist. And he made one of the country’s most polarizing public figures—Mr. Sharpton—his point man on civil-rights issues. A Gallup survey in 2015 reported that 62% of respondents were dissatisfied with the state of race relations in the country, up from 40% in 2008. In October 2016, a month before Donald Trump was elected, more than half the respondents in a CNN poll said that “relations between blacks and whites have gotten worse since Obama became president.”
Might this also have played a factor, fairly or not, in the poor showing of Cory Booker and Kamala Harris in the 2020 presidential race? Perhaps. Or maybe they just ran bad campaigns that ignored the most important lessons of Mr. Obama’s first run. Say what you want about how he ran the country. He knew how to win.
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