His life epitomizes the American dream. Now he has to show that he's 'one of us.'
In her compelling speech at the Democratic Convention Monday night, Michelle Obama took an important step toward reassuring voters that the Obamas are, at their core, just another American family. With grace, warmth, and a light touch, she confronted her husband's greatest electoral vulnerability as the campaign for the White House enters its final ten-week sprint.
That vulnerability is not his race. Indeed, Mrs. Obama's speech was almost entirely devoid of explicit reference to race – a topic with which the Obamas are clearly not obsessed. In her account, the milestone for the nation in her husband's victory would be less the election of a first black president than the demonstration that "the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House."
Race, of course, is not irrelevant in a close election. Whatever else he may be, Barack Obama is an African-American in a country that, despite enormous strides, has not yet fully outgrown racial prejudice. And more personally, one of Michelle Obama's own challenges in her debut on the national stage was to dispel a conception of her – recall the satirical New Yorker cover – as an "angry" or "militant" black woman. She met this challenge beautifully.
But outright racial hostility will not be the major obstacle to Obama's election. Most of the small, hard core of the public who would vote against a black candidate on race alone wouldn't have supported a left-of-center white Democrat against a conservative either.