Barack Obama has a problem. He has based his campaign on moving past the stale arguments of the past 20 years when the Bush & Clinton families have taken turns in the White House – America’s "late Roman empire" problem. But, last week, the campaign harkened back to an even earlier time, the identity politics of the 1970s. Barack needs to change the debate in the next two weeks or he is finished. Had Barack won Nevada, even narrowly, it would be different, but Clinton performed so strongly among women and Latinos, the press will likely focus on the racial characteristics of the electorate as the principal explanation of voting behavior. Now, even if he wins South Carolina next Saturday, pundits will say it was a "black" win because African-Americans make up such a large part of the SC primary electorate. In the last week, Barack has become the "black" candidate, a status he never sought, and one that robs his campaign of its soaring, transformative theme. Indeed, one of the most startling facts about the race previously was that Barack and Hillary were fighting for the black vote. In one sense, he has no one to blame but himself. As mentioned last week, Obama’s policy proposals have lacked the transformative content of his biography. And, as Paul Starr points out in a very smart essay in yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook: "Neither Obama nor Clinton is running on their identity, but because the substantive policy differences between them are so small, identity has become central to their showdown." There is now little time to roll out the kind of significant policy differences that would help, and going harshly negative on Clinton runs the risk of undermining the rationale for his candidacy, someone who can take the party and the nation beyond the slash-and-burn politics of polarization that Clinton has made an art form. Barack needs to aggressively go after the Latino vote. He needs to craft an ad around Hillary’s response to a question about immigration when it first came up. Clinton did not sound like the GOP candidates, who have skirted with outright racism in their discussions of immigration. But, she mentioned four negative consequences of illegal immigration and made no positive reference to the contributions immigrants have made to the nation nor did she voice any concern for the most important concern among Latino immigrants – keeping families together. It is not uncommon to find a wife with a green card married to an undocumented husband, with citizen children. Discussing immigration reform with a central focus on keeping families together will not only ring true for Latinos, but will help Barack with white, ethnic Catholic voters as well. It will draw a clear contrast between himself and the GOP rantings. And, reframing the immigration debate around the question – does anyone really want government agents separating husbands from wives and children from their parents? – is exactly the kind of transformative politics Obama claims to represent. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 1/21/2008 - 5:07pm
Thanks for this post and for the link to the Washington Post article. I, also, have dared to think of a Obama Clinton or Clinton Obama ticket. That is why I was disheartened to read this morning in the NYT that their dislike of one another was visible and increasing. Many will be watching for signs of that in tonight's debate. Which one, Obama or Clinton would do best in a national debate against McCain? I would like to say Obama, but it could be Clinton because of her experience in the Senate.
Anonymous | 1/23/2008 - 11:10pm
Where does Obama stand on the great issue of our time? Let's start here: Obama is staunchly against the Born Alive Protection Act. He voted it down three times. The law required children who survived abortions to be given medical treatment. Think about that.