Why, with the election less than three months away, is Barack Obama still embroiled in negotiations with his supposedly defeated rival for the nomination over how much of the limelight she and her husband will hog at the Democratic National Convention?

Sure, John Edwards unwittingly stole the spotlight this weekend, with his forced admission of infidelity. But just weeks before Obama accepts the nomination, Billary is boldly hijacking the stage—literally. She, with her ploy to have her 18 million supporters nominate her. He, with his refusal to say Obama is ready to lead.

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Why, when he should be focusing all his attention on defeating John McCain, is he still preoccupied with trying to satisfy the demands of what must surely be the most insatiably narcissistic white couple on Earth?

This is the same question I asked months ago during the primaries when Obama essentially chose to sit on his lead rather than mount an aggressive attack on Clinton's multiple vulnerabilities. It probably has something to do with what The Washington Post says are growing fears among some Democrats that Obama is not responding toughly enough to McCain's attempts to paint him as a vacuous, race-card-playing celebrity who would rather lose a war than an election. It may also have something to do with why Obama has lost so much ground to McCain in national polls that some Republicans have begun to think that their nominee might have a chance to win the election.

Given the sorry reputation of the Bush administration, the sad state of the economy and widespread fatigue with the war in Iraq, the Democratic standard-bearer should be contemplating a landslide.

So why is Obama not doing better?

The answer, I fear, is related to race, but in a more complex way than how we usually think of it. Certainly the reluctance of an unknown number of whites to entrust the presidency to a black man is a factor. But beyond that lurks a more impenetrable conundrum: whether Obama is, by nature, suited to aggressively combat opponents who happen to be white.

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Does the placating style of disarming whites that he adopted as a biracial child—described in soul-wrenching detail in his book, Dreams From My Father—inhibit him from mounting the sort of hard-edged negative campaign that unfortunately has become essential to our politics? Is he averse to saying tough things—no matter how true—about an opponent who happens to be white because he fears being branded as a black racist? Is there something in him that makes him hold back? I don't know. I'm just asking.

Obama's strategists insist that it's good politics for their man to hold his fire until the fall when his edge in funds will allow him to blanket the airwaves with ads.

And, they argue, letting Hillary's supporters have a noisy catharsis at the convention is an acceptable price to pay to ensure their support in November. The key to his success, they say, is his ability to rise above the old style of character assassination and simple-minded sloganeering and bring about something new. That's all very convincing, but I worry that Obama may yet be caught in a lose-lose situation brought about in part by racism and in part by his own inclinations about race.

If he suffers McCain's assaults as sheepishly as he has tolerated the affronts of the Clintons, he'll be branded a wimp without the fortitude to lead the nation in dangerous times. If he fights back strongly against his white opponents, he runs the risk of being branded an uppity black—by some voters—and, perhaps, even in his own mind.

Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.