Is America ready to elect a black president? We'll find out in November. Barack Obama's candidacy poses an unprecedented sociological experiment. Everything about us, including how far we've come toward the creation of the more perfect union in which people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, will be put to the test. And everything about Obama will be put to the test as well, including his ability to forge a winning political strategy.
The sad but unavoidable reality is that race is likely to play a pivotal role in this experiment. If Obama were a generic white, male Democrat of similar eloquence, youthful grace and energy, he would be a guaranteed easy landslide victor over the standard bearer for a party as deeply unpopular as the Republicans have become. As Alan Abramowitz, a professor of public opinion and the presidency at Emory University told Politico.com, "It is one of the worst political environments for the party in power since World War II."
Obama is ahead of John McCain by 15 points in one recent poll, but that's no cause for overconfidence: In 1988, Michael Dukakis had a similar advantage at a comparable point in the race, but wound up a loser to the first George Bush. Other surveys show Obama with only a six-point lead over McCain— a narrow margin that many white analysts seem to be going out of their way to attribute to every factor but the most obvious one, his ethnicity. White commentators may not want to talk about it, but race—not Obama's relatively short resume, or the resentment of Hillary Clinton's feminist supporters or McCain's increasingly obsolete image as a maverick—is the biggest obstacle between Obama and the White House.
That means that despite his lock on the black vote and his popularity among the young and highly educated, Obama must add enough whites to his coalition to win in the electoral college. He need not garner a majority of such voters—no Democrat, including Bill Clinton, has since 1964—but he needs enough of them to win. Can he do it? Yes, he can, with the right strategy. Here's my unsolicited nine-point plan to Obama for winning over white voters and victory in the fall campaign:
1) Remind us who you are. Hire Spike Lee to produce a one-hour story of your life, emphasizing your mother's Midwestern roots, your grandfather's and great-uncle's service in World War II, your climb through excellence to Harvard Law School and your time as a community organizer in Chicago. Include great footage of helping your daughters with their homework and of your participation in pick-up basketball games. The objective is to show that yours is a truly American story of patriotism, hard work and achievement that makes people feel that if you can make it, they can, too. Put it on all the networks before your acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention on August 28.
2) Keep it simple and sunny. The last time we faced an election as pivotal as this was 1980, when Ronald Reagan used his optimistic personality and a simple but powerful message to wrest the presidency from the hapless Jimmy Carter and usher in a conservatism that would dominate American politics for a generation. You have the potential to accomplish a similar re-alignment for your own brand of post-partisan pragmatic liberalism by recycling a few pages from Reagan's play book. Ask voters if they are better off than they were eight years ago. Promise them that we can rebuild the economy if we stop wasting lives and treasury on unnecessary wars and focus on renewing the infrastructure, finding new energy sources and coping with global warming. Don't get bogged down in details about new policy ideas.
3) Go to church every Sunday. This is the best way to combat the rumors that you are a secret Muslim and neutralize the damage from your ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Make sure the congregations are racially mixed. Keep meeting with evangelical leaders to let them know that you are a Democrat who understands their values and shares their belief in Jesus Christ.
4) Re-channel RFK. Use your powerful oratory to revive the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, when blacks and whites united in the cause of racial equality. Ignore the segment of white voters who will never vote for a black candidate under any circumstances. Concentrate, instead, on those who can be persuaded that you offer a better future for everybody by retracing Robert F. Kennedy's visits to in Appalachia, Indian reservations, ghettos and barrios, reminding all of us how much more must still be done to make the American dream real for everyone.
5) Be nice to McCain. Treat him the way you treated the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, "like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with." Call him "sir," when you debate him—which you should do whenever you can. Point out how closely he has tied himself to the failed policies of the Bush administration, but do it with respect and genuine admiration. Smile at him. This will help create the post-partisan atmosphere you'll need to accomplish anything once you get elected.
6) Show off your team. You've got a diverse group of really smart advisors. Make sure voters know that by putting them in the spotlight. Keep letting reporters into your sessions with your economic and foreign policy team, as you did a few days ago, to see how you operate. Let them float innovative new policy ideas while you focus on the big picture. Let voters see that you are smart and confident enough to let yourself be guided by folks who are even smarter.
7) Avoid Washington insiders. You did the right thing by quickly accepting the resignation of Jim Johnson from your vice-presidential vetting team, but you should never have put him on the team in the first place. Inevitably you have to include crafty Washington veterans in your campaign cabinet, but keep them at a minimum. Voters need to know that you are serious about change, and the best way to reinforce that message is to surround yourself with advisors who look like the new America you are trying to create.
8) Talk tough to your supporters, including blacks and liberals. Your Father's Day speech on absentee black dads was a masterstroke. It not only won applause from blacks but showed skeptical whites that you understand their feelings about race even if you don't necessarily agree with them. Follow up by re-iterating your skepticism about paying reparations for slavery and your doubts about race-based affirmative action policies. This will help to demonstrate that you intend to be a president for everybody, not just blacks. By the same reasoning, stand up to your supporters from Moveon.com, by sticking to your support for the compromise Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which protects telephone companies that cooperated with government intelligence agencies from lawsuits. The law sucks, but you can change it if you're elected. Meanwhile, there's no reason to give Republicans an excuse for charging you with being soft on terrorists.
9) Go to the front lines. Pay a visit to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan before the convention to get a first-hand look at how the wars are going. Pay visits to veterans' hospitals and propose big improvements in the way our soldiers are treated. Like putting that flag pin back in your lapel, these steps will help to burnish your patriotism and foreign policy credentials. If you are going to be commander-in-chief, you have to act like one.
There are, of course, lots of other things that you can do to improve your chances in November, and you're already doing some of them. But none of them may be as important, in the end, as something we blacks can do for you. We have to let you have the freedom to run as a candidate for all the people, not just us. If we try to turn your campaign into a black thing that whites don't understand, you won't make it and the country will be stuck with four more years of disastrous policies. This is a case in which we have to put America's interests ahead of our own, by letting you do whatever you need to do to win. Go for it! Yes, you can.
Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.