Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

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

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“He’s supposed to be a transformative figure,” Glaude told me. “Why is it the case that he can’t simply say, when we talk about health care, we know it disproportionately affects poor people and black peo­ple? Why can’t he begin to talk about these issues in ways that iden­tify black communities, without trying to sound like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton? The thing is, the very way that Jesse and Al have exploited the theater of racial politics, he’s doing it from a different vantage point. We haven’t changed the game. That’s what makes me so angry. He hasn’t stepped outside of the game.”  

Perhaps he hadn’t. But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken one month before Election Day pointed to the reason. Forty percent of whites, and an equal percentage of self-described swing voters, de­clared themselves bothered that “Barack Obama has been supported by African American leaders such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton.”23 This was the backlash risk the Obama campaign had been worried about.  

In the end, nothing succeeds like success, and most of Obama’s black critics were muted, some because they believed political sacrifice was a necessary ingredient for victory. “We inherently believe that what he’s doing he has to do,” Kevin Wardally, a New York political consultant, said. “He has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes.”24 

Others, however, are playing wait-and-see. Will the nation’s first African American president deliver? And what does delivering mean anymore if the normal corridors to power are not more readily avail­able to African Americans by virtue of the fact that the man in the Oval Office is black? 

There is every chance the Moses generation, in ceding the next round to the Joshua generation, may have to adapt to a new defini­tion of success. There is also every evidence that Barack Obama has not transcended race. But his election has provided new proof that he has redefined what racial politics is.

Gwen Ifill is host of ''Washington Week'' on PBS.