Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

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


The risks were many. Obama received Secret Service protection ear­lier than any other candidate in history. In the days after he won the November election, law enforcement agencies reported that threats di­rected at the newly elected president spiked dramatically. Such serious safety concerns made some of the racial gibes aimed at Obama during the campaign seem juvenile, but they acted as reminders that not all of America was buying into the notion of racial transcendence.

It’s hard to pick a favorite outrage. There were the men who wore monkey shirts to Obama’s rallies, and elected officials who called him “uppity.” There was the Kentucky Republican, Representative Geoff Davis, who referred to Obama as “that boy” during a GOP dinner in Frankfort.9 There was the GOP vendor in Texas who marketed but­tons that read, “If Obama is president . . . will we still call it the White House?”10 And there was the ten-dollar box of “Obama Waffles” sold at a conservative political convention, complete with a picture of a black man with pop eyes and big lips, smiling at a plate of waffles.11 There was the newsletter distributed by a California Republican club that featured an Obama caricature surrounded by ribs, watermelon, and fried chicken—all on a fake food stamp.12 I could go on.

The taunts did not come only from white Republicans. During the heated primary campaign, Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a prominent Clinton supporter, man­aged to allude to Obama’s teenage drug use. “Obama was doing some­thing in the neighborhood,” he said, as if steering around a confidence. “I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book.” He also sug­gested Obama was a sellout, comparing him to Sidney Poitier’s char­acter in the interracial romance drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This earned a rebuke even from the conservative columnist George Will. “For the uninitiated,” Will wrote, “that is how you call someone an Uncle Tom in an age that has not read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”13 

“We’re letting other people pick our leaders,” Johnson later com­plained to the Washington Post.14

“I think we looked like we were going to win, and I think that an element of overt race awareness kicked in,” campaign manager David Plouffe told me in the spring. “Which is really, ‘Should it be this easy for this guy? Is he getting a break because he’s an African American political superstar?’ Each time he’s looked like he could secure this thing, there’s been a backlash.”  

Most of the time, Obama refused to be drawn into the racial dra­mas. Whenever he did, as when he suggested mildly that he did not look like other presidents seen on U.S. dollar bills, he was accused—as John McCain’s campaign manager once said—of playing “the race card . . . from the bottom of the deck.”15 

Axelrod and Plouffe had worked for black candidates before, notably Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and they were convinced talk­ing about race was not going to get their candidate elected. Axelrod said it was a “function of math.” “It was obvious that if you were going to play in a larger venue and not just a majority-black one, you needed a candidate who could appeal” to nonblack voters, he said.  

This worked for Patrick when he was elected governor in 2006. “I don’t care whether the next president is the first black president or the first woman president or the first whatever, to tell you the truth,” the governor told a Boston Common crowd early in the Obama campaign. “I care that the next president has moral courage, a political backbone, the humility to admit what he doesn’t know, and the wisdom to learn from others.”  

This approach, however, was thrown spectacularly off track in spring 2008, when Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., almost derailed the Obama candidacy. The campaign had wor­ried about Wright enough to yank him from the program at Obama’s February 2007 announcement of his candidacy. But that was be­fore snippets of videotape surfaced featuring Wright at his most incendiary.