Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

A look at the much-anticipated book on black political leaders in the Obama generation.

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It was a fairly perilous tightrope Obama walked, and one that had never been managed at this level before. He had to integrate the tacti­cal with the strategic, reaching out to some voters without alienating others, and change the face of black politics altogether. He did this in part by crafting his persona and his speeches to appeal to all listen­ers. On the night he won the Iowa caucuses, he was making history, but he allowed others to interpret his meaning when he bellowed, “They said this day would never come!” “I knew that it would have multiple meanings to multiple people,” Obama’s twenty-seven-year­old white speechwriter, Jon Favreau, acknowledged later.2 Obama’s caution continued even after he won the presidency. Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes asked him after the election what he thought of his racial breakthrough, and Obama once again spoke of other people’s reac­tions—the faces in the crowd, his mother-in-law—not his own.  

But it became clear early on that this would be no color-blind cam­paign. During the heated and competitive primary season, an edgy and alarming debate took place between Hillary Clinton and Obama about race, gender, and even the legacy of Bill Clinton. The former president had famously deemed Obama’s plan for Iraq a “fairy tale,” and com­pared Obama’s South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson’s twenty years before. Then Hillary Clinton credited Lyndon B. Johnson rather than King, it seemed to critics, with getting the Civil Rights Act passed. “It took a president to get it done,” she said. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said were going to do it and actually got it done.”  

Obama called her remarks “ill-advised.” Senator John Edwards told a black church audience he was “troubled” by the comment.

The Clintons were furious at being accused of playing the race card. There was “not one shred of truth” to suggestions that she was trying to exploit racial tension in the campaign, Hillary Clinton said indig­nantly on Meet the Press. “I don’t think this campaign is about gender, and I certainly hope it is not about race.”

“She started this campaign saying that she wanted to make history, and lately she has been spending a lot of time rewriting it,” Obama re­sponded tartly.

And in a widely noted address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the nation’s oldest civil rights orga­nization—Obama admitted he was aware of the sensitivity his com­ments stirred. “I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks, talking about responsibility,” he said to the three thousand members gathered in Cincinnati. “At the NAACP, I’m here to report, I’m not going to stop talking about it.”  

Later in that speech he added, “When we are taking care of our own stuff, then a lot of other folks are going to be interested in joining up and working with us and taking care of America’s stuff.”

Many conservative black churchgoers applauded this approach, ris­ing to their feet in venue after venue to cheer him on. But some black leaders wondered if something wasn’t missing. Why wasn’t Obama speaking as a champion for black people instead of pointing out their shortcomings? Why wasn’t he talking specifically about racial dis­parities when he discussed issues such as education, health care, and criminal justice? Or, as Jesse Jackson famously whispered into an open microphone, was Obama “talking down to black people”?

Obama was not in this to prove he could lead or speak only to black people. The goal here was to romance the entire country. When I asked Obama in the summer of 2007 about whether the prospect of electing a black president was affecting how people viewed him, he recounted a conversation he’d had with Jackson.  

“He said something that’s very accurate,” Obama told me. “He said, ‘Barack, we had to break the door down, which means sometimes you’re not polite. You get bloodied up a little bit. You get some scars. You haven’t had to go through that, and that’s a good thing. That’s part of what we went through. I don’t expect you to have the same battle scars that I did.’”