Shelby Steele offers some interesting thoughts on the distinction between Barack Obama’s cultural cache and his political message. Steele argues that Obama’s promise of absolution for white guilt and relief of black anger explains most of his appeal. It’s not a terrible thing that people want to move beyond the sledgehammer racial politics of Jesse Jackson and say "enough already." Much evil might have been avoided had this desire manifested itself sooner. But Jesse Jackson’s got a legitimate gripe with Mr. Obama because of the way that Obama has played this hand. The irony is that white guilt has to be alive and well for Obama’s promise to assuage it to be appealing. If we were really past the "Age of Jackson" then Obama would be forced to talk more openly about the mess that is his political thinking. He’d be forced to answer questions very similar to those John Kerry had to answer in 2004. Instead he is fawned over and celebrated as a healer . . . because, clearly, something in America needs healing. Just ask Obama. So now the election appears to be about cultural appeal. And there is no contest between him and John McCain when it comes to cultural appeal. Trouble is that there’s also no contest (and this time the difference is not in Obama’s favor) when it comes to experience and political understanding. When it comes to the real work of politics, Obama comes up a little short.
Jesse may not think that his protege has the testicular fortitude necessary for a full-on political charge exploiting white guilt--he may seem to be giving up the leverage he needs to secure victories. But sometimes the student can be wiser than the professor and a much more astute practicioner of his teachings. Obama has observed the small-time jackpots Jackson has greedily called his own and he is not impressed. Perhaps Obama can get a bigger jackpot if he uses this trump card more sparingly. It’s straight out of Machiavelli. But this means that he can no more disavow Jackson’s politics than he can the Rev. Wright. Obama learned to play the game better than the Clintons because he could play it better than the Jacksons and the Wrights of this world. If McCain wants to get in this game he needs to call Obama’s bluff and force him to show the cards in his political hand.