How Obama could win over the white working class.

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Feb. 4 2008 2:40 PM

Obama's RFK Moment

How he could win over white working-class voters.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama 

Barack Obama has the vigor, charisma, and grace of John and Robert F. Kennedy, and their extraordinary ability to stir young people and generate adoring, enthusiastic crowds. Which is why Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama seemed like a natural. But both JFK and RFK counterbalanced their idealism with a toughness (some said a ruthlessness) currently associated more with Hillary Clinton than with Obama. This toughness allowed the Kennedys to appeal not only to upper-middle-class white liberals and to blacks—as Obama does—but also to working-class whites and Latinos, two of Hillary Clinton's core constituencies.

RFK's toughness, in particular, was fundamentally linked with his views on race and class. He and JFK both advocated strong civil rights laws, but when the issue of racial preferences arose in the mid-1960s, Robert Kennedy expressed opposition. "I've come to the conclusion that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color," he told Jack Newfield, as recounted in Newfield's book, Robert Kennedy: A Memoir. And RFK called for a crackdown on violent crime, whether the perpetrators were black or white, knowing the victims were most likely to be working-class people. Democrats moved closer to this position on crime under Bill Clinton. But they have generally rejected RFK's colorblind approach when it comes to affirmative action. As the first serious African-American candidate for president, Obama has a unique chance to resurrect this lost thread of tough liberalism.

So far, at a rhetorical level, Obama has been masterful in favoring a strong civil rights agenda while forcefully rejecting identity politics. In South Carolina, the crowd chanted "race doesn't matter," and Obama thundered: "I did not travel around this state and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina." Toni Morrison wrote that she wasn't endorsing Obama because of his race. "I would not support you if that was all you had to offer or because it might make me 'proud.' "

All this promising rhetoric, however, will be put to the test when Obama is called on to take a position in the fall on likely ballot initiatives to ban racial preferences in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The ballot measures, modeled on successful initiatives in California (1996), Washington (1998), and Michigan (2006), are the brainchild of black California businessman Ward Connerly. They would bar public colleges and other state agencies from discriminating against, or giving preference to, individuals on the basis of race or gender. Affirmative action is always unpopular, but it tends to be a particularly difficult sell in times of economic downturn. Will Obama apply the same principle he enunciates on the stump—vote for me because I'm the best candidate, not because I'm an African-American—to situations like college admissions?

To date, Obama has been encouraging on this front. When asked by George Stephanopoulos whether he thought his own daughters should receive a preference in college admissions, Obama replied, "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged. …" Then, he went further, "I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."

The question now, as Mickey Kaus noted in Slate, is whether Obama will take this fragment and build it into a major policy proposal to shift the basis of affirmative action from race to class. When Bill Clinton tried to make that move in the mid-1990s, he was hounded by Jesse Jackson. But in response to the argument that class-based affirmative action sells out blacks, Obama has special standing and credibility to urge a shift, as did RFK, who had a huge following among blacks, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., because he took a serious interest in poverty. And Obama can also say that the idea was proposed by none other than Martin Luther King Jr. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, King made the argument for taking steps to address our nation's history, but instead of proposing preferences for blacks, he suggested a "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged." King said, "It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor."

Class-based affirmative-action programs would still benefit African-Americans more than other groups, given the unfortunately strong link between race and class in American society. At UCLA Law School, for example, African-American students were 16 times as likely to be admitted under a program providing preference for economically disadvantaged students as under other programs, and Latinos were 6.8 times as likely to be admitted.

Obama's answers on the question of race and class will go a long way toward determining whether he can put together the Kennedys' old coalition of working-class whites and blacks, and in the process erase Hillary's advantage with working-class and poor voters. Obama has done a tremendous job of matching the Kennedys on passion and charisma. To win over voters from the white working class who aren't falling for the inspirational speeches, he needs to add urgency about class inequality to the equation.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.