Obama '08 - The Reverse Race Card and the Oprah Factor

The major media focus this past week has been on the re-surging Barack Obama campaign for the Democratic nomination for President, and the role that Oprah Winfrey's public and active support for the Obama campaign will have on the final selection process.

It is interesting that the PR frontal assault launched by Oprah comes just a couple of weeks after Obama's wife, Michelle, seemed to chastise the African-American community for not having overwhelmingly embraced the Obama campaign yet in its preference for who should be the next President. At one point, Michelle Obama said that "Black America will wake up and get it" in an MSNBC interview. She also said the Black community had to "shake off its fear."

In reality, she was actually playing on the very racial fears that she was condemning in her critique of apprehensions African-Americans have about the prospects of a successful Obama campaign for the Presidency. Michelle Obama seemed intent on linking the lack of overwhelming support for her husband among Black Americans with vestiges left from slavery and decades of racial injustice. In short, she was almost attempting to shame Black Americans into feeling as if they needed to free themselves of their own hang ups about race in America and then openly embrace her husband.

In fact, African Americans cannot just "free" themselves of hang ups about race in America, nor can they just "free" themselves from the vestiges of racial injustice, stereotypes and prejudices. Why? Because all of those factors still do exist in American society. Personally, as a political analyst, I always evaluate at least part of assessing a candidate's viability on making a judgment about whether they can actually win the election. Of course their positions on the issues and their previous track record and the excitement and authenticity and genuineness they bring to the campaign are all important - and Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and possibly Bill Richardson and even Dennis Kucinich all meet that criterion - but they necessarily lose points in the evaluation of their potential candidacy when the "can they actually win" question is addressed.

If African-Americans, and not all were doing this to begin with, but if many elect to determine who they will support based on who they think can actually win, and if they think that race and attitudes about race in America are factors that suggest to them that a particular candidate cannot win, then it is entirely justifiable for them to reach that conclusion until or unless either the circumstances on the ground in the campaign or the efforts of the candidates themselves convince them otherwise. And that reasoning is just as powerful and supportable as when Michelle Obama argues that Hillary Clinton "cannot win" because of pre-formed attitudes.

And all of the concepts that Michelle Obama raised as complaints about the less than total support Barack Obama had been receiving among potential black voters completely disintegrate when one considers that if Hillary Clinton were not in the race, Barack Obama would probably lead all candidates among black voters by a substantial margin. If the premises Michelle Obama postured were true, then it wouldn't matter who was in the race as African-Americans would still not be supporting Obama based on the reasons that Michelle raised. The bottom line is that for many African Americans, their lack of support for Barack Obama had nothing to do with racial intolerance and the memories of slavery and feeling they "can't do this" etc - they simply preferred someone else.

And now, enter Oprah Winfrey. Americans have not held back in nurturing their love and admiration of Oprah Winfrey because of racial attitudes and the vestiges of slavery - no, instead - Oprah was the one they preferred the most, and so they have embraced her as their favorite. And when they feel that way about Barack Obama, they will embrace him in the same way - but right now, for many Americans, white and black, they prefer someone else - its as simple as that.

But Oprah is a factor, and although I disagree with her policy of not allowing any other candidates to appear on her show other than Barack Obama (she's like a guardian of a public treasure), I think it is exciting to see someone of her stature become so enthusiastic and excited about participating in the political process.

But what will her impact be? Oprah has long had far more reverential adulation among white female suburbanites than among African-American women, even though her approval ratings are high among both. But White women have put Oprah on a stature with a First Lady or earth bound Goddess, and Oprah has not quite reached that stature among most African-American women - even though they love her, including my own Mom who has attended an Oprah show in Chicago. And what makes this situation so interesting is that the demographics of the people who love Oprah in Iowa couldn't be more different than the people who love her in South Carolina, and she is putting her name and prestige on the line for Barack Obama in both states.

Here's what Oprah does for Barack Obama. One, she keeps him on the front pages of the news even as all the campaigns tend to take a back seat to the holidays, family and weather right now. Two, Oprah gets so much more media attention and coverage that is just like buying tons of advertising and commercials for the Obama campaign - even better. Three, Oprah attracts lots of women to the campaign which serves as a subtle knock on the Hillary Clinton campaign (be careful that doesn't backfire a bit). Four, if the Obama campaign is smart, they will convert many of the new female supporters to actual campaign workers, always a valuable asset. Five, the Oprah involvement will increase fund raising and financial support to the campaign. And Six, it provides momentum going into the first primaries only three weeks away that might very well translate into votes. No one really knows what actual impact Oprah will have, but no one will criticize that support, and everyone wishes they had it. In some ways, the Oprah factor actually raises the stakes for Obama. Now, he almost has to win Iowa, and he really needs to carry the black vote in South Carolina (he's drawing even there after running behind).

If somehow, after all this, Hillary still manages to win Iowa by any margin, and win South Carolina and still carry the black vote, then the Obama campaign will have suffered a major blow, and there's only one Oprah out there to call on. If Obama wins Iowa, South Carolina and less likely New Hampshire, then he's on his way to Super Tuesday, and while heading there his wife can apologize to African-Americans for misjudging their attitudes and level of political sophistication.

Carl Jeffers is a Seattle-and-Los Angeles based columnist, political analyst and lecturer. He hosts a KIRO-AM talk show program, ON FIRE with Carl Jeffers, and he is a guest host of Clear Channel Radio and Air America Radio as well. Carl Jeffers is a political commentator for the Radio One Network and also the KCBI network in Dallas,TX. Jeffers is a national TV political commentator and is also an editorial contributor to The Seattle Times. E-mail: cjintel@juno.com