Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

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


His pastor’s comments, Obama said, lapsing into the harshest lan­guage he would use all week, were “stupid.” “We benefit from that past,” he told me. “We benefit from the difficult battles that were taking place. But I’m not sure that we benefit from continuing to per­petuate the anger and the bitterness that I think, at this point, serves to divide rather than bring us together.”16 

The next day, Obama channeled this thinking into a speech that decried the nation’s “racial stalemate” and returned to his campaign’s most uplifting themes—change and hope.  

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this coun­try—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still ir­revocably bound to a tragic past.”  

Wright himself suggested that Obama was ducking a race debate: “I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for of­fice.”17 But by then, Obama was not much listening to Wright anymore.  

Plouffe told me the campaign and the candidate had hoped never to have to give a “race speech.” “The Wright thing made it more than necessary, and he needed to put that in context,” he said. “He’s obvi­ously running to do big things domestically and internationally. And if the campaign gets defined by ‘Are we going to have racial reconcilia­tion or not?’ I think a lot of that gets crowded out.  

“The issues he raised in that speech are not essential to his candi­dacy,” Plouffe added. “They are essential, they’re important problems we’re dealing with in this country, but it’s not like in August and September and October he’s going to keep reprising his speech and offering his candidacy as a way to heal the country.”  

Indeed, just as Plouffe, Axelrod, and the candidate himself planned, Obama never gave a speech exclusively about race again. “Barack’s can­didacy, while he spoke to those issues, it was pitched in a much broader way,” Axelrod said after Election Day. “He came to this not primarily as the black candidate, but as a candidate for president who happened to be black.”  

It is impossible to overstate how complicated a feat this was to pull off in a nation where the races worship and socialize separately, listen to different music, and watch different television shows. Somehow, instead of becoming a dominant feature of a historic campaign, the divisive is­sue of race—in Obama’s words, “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect”—was ultimately reduced to the occasional eruption.  

Part of the reason this happened is the temperament of the candi­date himself. Obama was convinced that focusing the conversation on race in and of itself was a losing argument for a crossover black politi­cian. “I’m sympathetic to efforts to have a racial conversation in this country,” he told the National Association of Black Journalists at their summer 2007 convention. “But I find that generally there’s a lot of breast-beating and hand-wringing and then not much follow-through. The kind of conversation I’m interested in having about race is very concrete. Do we have a criminal justice system that is color-blind? If we do not, how do we fix it? . . .  

“My belief is that African Americans, like other racial minorities in this country, are much more interested in deeds than words,” he continued. “And that’s the kind of leadership that I want to show as president of the United States.” 

Obama campaigned in much the same way as he talked to us that day. On one occasion in South Carolina, a black woman stepped for­ward to tell him that her elderly father was not convinced a black man could win. “If I came to you and I had polka dots,” he responded, “but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pock­ets, and help you pay for college and help keep America safe, you’d say, ‘OK. You know, I wish you didn’t have polka dots, but I’m still voting for him.’”18