Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

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

“The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things,” he said, referring to the March on Washington. “They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead—people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.”  

This too was classic Obama. He did not deny his race, but he gen­erally didn’t bring it up either. You had to look in the pages of his ac­claimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father, to learn about his admiration for Malcolm X and his collegiate flirtation with black ac­tivism. But the book also held these words: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race,” he wrote. “But it didn’t, couldn’t end there.”

Obama and his advisers decided early that he was not going to win the presidency by playing up his race. Those who would be drawn to that aspect of his biography would vote for him in any case, they rea­soned. The toughest votes to win would come from those who might overlook or distrust him because of something he could not control— the color of his skin.  

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president of America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, an Obama pollster who is himself African American, told me after the election. “A black man can’t be president of America. However, an ex­traordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”  

So Obama was to become the world’s most famous black man not by denying his biracial identity but by embracing parts of it selectively. On the podium at the Democratic National Convention, we saw his Indonesian half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, but not his Kenyan half sister Auma Obama. And the omissions in his biography were not limited to race: There was just passing reference made to Michelle and Barack Obama’s elite educations at Princeton and Harvard and to their law degrees.  

“He appreciates and embraces his blackness,” observed Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown professor and author who climbed aboard the Obama presidential campaign bandwagon early. “But he doesn’t want that to exhaust his agenda, or determine what his vocational trajectory will be. What he will say, what he will do, how he will behave, how he will act.”  

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.