Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Obama's Farrakhan Dilemma
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Here's what a spokesperson for Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama said when he got wind of former Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s virtual endorsement of Obama’s White House bid, “Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Minister Farrakhan's past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister's support." Farrakhan made the glowing tout of Obama at the NOI’s annual Savior's Day confab in Chicago. Obama’s denunciation of Farrakhan was blunt and pointed. But he did not reject Farrakhan’s implied endorsement.
Even after Hillary Clinton publicly demanded that he forcefully reject Farrakhan’s endorsement, Obama waffled. He weakly said after more Clinton cajoling that he rejected the endorsement. He still did not mention Farrakhan by name. A candidate shouldn't need to be prodded by his opponent to emphatically reject the endorsement of a controversial, and in the case of Farrakhan, much vilified figure. Obama, of course, does not endorse Farrakhan's views, politics, or his organization, and he has made that clear on more than one occasion.
Yet his failure to flatly say he does not want his endorsement is no surprise. Farrakhan may be a controversial and much vilified figure but he is not a fringe figure within black communities. He is still cheered and admired by thousands of blacks. They are also voters too and most have embraced Obama with almost messianic zeal. This zeal has been a driving force in powering Obama's surge past Clinton. Many blacks are exhilarated by the prospect that a black man will sit in the Oval office. In other words, Obama is a racial fantasy come true for many blacks.
Few blacks publicly demand that he assume the role of a black leader. They have made no demand that he tell what he’ll do to boost civil rights protections, fight the HIV/AIDS plague, or take strong positions on the other pressing social issues. It’s just as well they haven’t since his image is that of the new generation African-American elected official who thinks and speaks as a unifier and consensus builder, not a racial crusader.
However, many blacks quietly expect or at least hope that if he’s elected it will be more than a historic first for blacks. They hope that he will be a vigorous proponent of civil rights and social programs. As long as that hope is there their impassioned zeal be for him will be there too. If Obama denounces Farrakhan too strongly that would raise the eyebrows of the thousands of blacks who admire Farrakhan and his organization.
But, if Obama doesn’t blast Farrakhan as an anti-white hate monger that could raise questioning eyebrows with many white voters. He can’t afford that. He’s far exceeded the predictions of many who questioned whether whites would vote for an African-American for president. They have and he has even done what was thought to be even more implausible and that’s net considerable backing from white males. They have been rock solid backers of GOP presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. Obama got their support with his open-ended message of change and unity. Farrakhan, then, is the absolute last thing that Obama needs now that he’s on a roll with so many diverse voters.
Obama isn’t the first politician to face the Farrakhan dilemma. It got Jesse Jackson into momentary hot water during his presidential bid in 1984. Jackson rashly agreed to let the NOI briefly handle some of his security. That drew howls that Jackson was in bed with the Farrakhan. Jackson backpedaled fast and dropped the NOI as part of his security. That didn’t stop the loud grumbles that Jackson as a presidential candidate was too cozy with Farrakhan. But Jackson did not denounce Farrakhan. He stayed mute in part out of his stubborn insistence that no one should tell him who could support him, and in bigger part with an eye on the black vote.
Obama is closing in on a place in history. If he wins the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries, his fierce nomination battle with Clinton will be virtually over. The movement will be irresistible among Democrats to nominate him and that will evaporate the Democrat’s worst fear, namely a fractured convention, split between the two warring Obama and Clinton factions. A divided party would be a lethal blow to the Democrat’s chances to take back the White House.
But Obama also knows that he doesn’t just need black votes. Any Democratic presidential contender will get the majority of black votes. That was the case with Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Both still lost. He needs blacks to turn his drive to the White House into a crusade. They must make a spirited and massive rush to the polls. Farrakhan can help insure that some of that spirit and some of those numbers are there. Obama can’t publicly applaud him for doing that. But he can’t totally reject him either. That’s Obama’s Farrakhan dilemma.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).