EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in New American Media.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama beamed as he sat beside Jesse Jackson as Jesse announced that he was formally endorsing Obama’s candidacy. The idea was that Jackson’s endorsement would give Obama a rocket boost with black voters. It won’t. And there are two glaring reasons why.
The first is Jackson himself. While some polls show that Jackson is still popular among many blacks, he’s not the Jackson of a decade ago or even four years ago. That Jackson could instantly heat up a crowd with a timely slogan, catchy rhyme, or well-timed phrase and he had the instant ear of presidents and heads of state.
However, the taint of sexual scandal and his fade from the headlines has wiped much of the luster off of his racial star.
Jackson belongs to the older civil rights generation, and he’s found it tough-sledding trying to sell his civil rights pitch to upwardly mobile, younger blacks that have little inkling of past civil rights struggles. Jackson hinted at that in his brief speech endorsing Obama, when he said that it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of black politicians. That was self-serving and disingenuous.
Jackson has no intention of passing any torch on now. He will continue to do everything he can to micromanage a role for himself on the national political scene. In the next breath he boasted that he’d work with whichever Democrat ultimately emerges on top and that he is talking to the other Democratic contenders about his agenda.
The second problem is Obama. Even if Jackson was a rock solid Obama man, and still had the sheen on his leadership badge, he wouldn’t be much help to him.
A Democratic presidential contender must not be afraid to dump strategies on the nation’s public policy table to combat the astronomically high black unemployment rate, soaring incarceration rate for black men, the HIV/AIDS plague, and failing public schools, as well as a plan for a drug and criminal justice system overhaul. These are the issues that stir the political juices of most blacks. Obama hasn’t as yet addressed them.
Obama is a good liberal with a commendable record on some issues. The problem is there’s just not enough of a record to gauge his effectiveness as a presidential possibility, or even as a good Senator at this still very early point in his jump to the national political stage.
Black voters, indeed all voters, crave and deserve a candidate with a proven track record or at least a defined plan for dealing with the crucial issues. The initial reluctance of many black voters, top black Democrats, and civil rights leaders, including Jackson for a while, to leap on the Obama bandwagon is due to the freshman Senator’s paper thin legislative record. As Obama’s rock star allure fades in the gruel and heat of the presidential campaign, the questions will loom larger about his plan for an exit from Iraq, nuclear proliferation, stimulating the economy, battling inflation, environmental and labor problems, campaign finance reform and the always explosive minefield of racial relations.
The contrast between Obama and his Democratic presidential rival John Edwards on the issues has been glaring. Edwards was a full-term senator, a seasoned presidential ticket campaigner in 2004, and in the years since the election has barnstormed the country talking and listening to labor and health care advocates about working conditions and the urgent need for affordable health care for the estimated fifty million uninsured Americans. Blacks and Latinos make up a significant percentage of the uninsured.
He’s crafted a thoughtful and detailed comprehensive plan for national health care and has talked it up at campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire. At a Democratic presidential candidates’ forum in Las Vegas in March he spelled out the plan.
Obama has detailed no plan on health care, and stumbled badly when asked about it at the Las Vegas confab.
Obama backers counter that the knock that their candidate lacks political seasoning and a firm handle on the issues is unfair. They say that Bush was equally inexperienced in national and international problem solving before grabbing the Oval Office. That’s a lame counter. The White House is no place for on-the-job-training. Voters, and even top Republicans, should have demanded more of candidate Bush. They didn’t, and his towering public policy fumbles, initially on the war on terrorism, and now on Iraq, Social Security and tax reform has been nothing short of disastrous, has cost taxpayers dearly, and has caused much political and public rancor and division.
When the presidential campaign turns torrid in next year’s primaries, Obama will have to spell out clearly where he stands on the hot-button issues, and tell how he’ll make things work in the White House if he gets there. The voters will and should demand that much of him as well as of the other candidates. Jackson can’t and won’t help Obama there.