Time: Is He American Enough?


Is He American Enough?

“I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.” So said Sarah Palin about Barack Obama on Oct. 6 as she attacked him for his decision to “pal around” with onetime Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers. With Obama back in the lead, the new, harsher Republican line surprised almost nobody. The Obama campaign declared it a distraction before it even arrived.

But seen in historical perspective, the McCain campaign’s strategy against Obama is actually kind of shocking. For years, the recipe for injecting race into a political campaign has been clear. First, invoke the specter of black crime, as Lee Atwater did in 1988 when he vowed to turn murderer Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis’ “running mate.” Second, attack lazy people in the inner city, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 when he condemned a Chicago “welfare queen.” Third, bash affirmative action, as the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms did in 1990 when he ran an ad showing white hands crumpling a job rejection notice.

Historically, this stuff has often worked, even against white candidates considered too solicitous of African-American concerns. And yet this year, with a black man actually running for President, the old recipe has been shelved. John McCain hasn’t run ads on crime, welfare or racial preferences. At the gop convention, the subjects barely came up.

Does that mean race doesn’t matter this year? Hardly. It just matters in a different way. In the past, Republicans often used race to make their opponents seem anti-white. In 2008, with their incessant talk about who loves their country and who doesn’t, McCain and Palin are doing something different: they’re using race to make Obama seem anti-American.

It is these 21st century anxieties–anxieties about changes from outside America that seem beyond average Americans’ control–that represent the Republicans’ best shot at unhorsing Obama now. In March, Pew found that 56% of high school–educated white voters see newcomers as threatening, compared with less than a third of those with a college degree. White voters who haven’t graduated from college, according to a Pew poll in September, were more than twice as likely to think Obama is Muslim as those who have. And not coincidentally, it is among these less educated white voters that McCain is strongest. Among non-Hispanic whites who have attended graduate school, according to Gallup this month, Obama leads McCain by 13 points. Among those with a high school diploma or less, he trails by 12.

Fifty years ago, America’s racial challenges came largely from within, as black Americans demanded full equality in the country they had inhabited for hundreds of years. Today many of America’s racial challenges come from without, as Third World immigration transforms the nation and U.S. workers and leaders struggle to come to terms with China and India, the emerging, nonwhite superpowers. If Martin Luther King Jr. symbolized that earlier transition, Barack Obama may have inadvertently come to symbolize this one. How he fares on Nov. 4 will be a sign of America’s willingness to embrace the realities of a new age.


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