Barack Obama, a month after slyly headlining Tom Harkin’s annual Iowa steak fry, finally acknowledged over the weekend that the next Presidential race is on his mind. By virtue of his media stardom, he would enter as a top-tier aspirant for the Democratic nomination.
The rapidity of his rise is fairly astounding: Just two years ago, Mr. Obama was a backbencher in the lowly Illinois State Legislature.
But what’s really noteworthy about the Barack boomlet may simply be that, for the first time, a black elected official has been fast-tracked to the top echelon of national political stardom on the strength of his own celebrity. His rise to prominence, keyed as much by enthusiasm among whites as among blacks, stands in stark contrast to those of Mr. Obama’s black political forebears, whose ambitions generally haven’t extended past the boundaries of their ethnically gerrymandered Congressional districts.
Contrast Mr. Obama’s career path with that of New York’s Charlie Rangel, who now, after 36 years in Congress, stands on the verge of taking over the influential House Ways and Means Committee if the Democrats win in November.
Mr. Rangel has amassed, several times over, the kind of experience and legislative accomplishments that Mr. Obama has been derided by political pundits for lacking. But never have Democratic bigwigs regarded Mr. Rangel as having the widespread appeal needed to win a statewide race for governor or the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Rangel, now 76 years old, is one of dozens of black Congressmen who cut their political teeth during the civil-rights era, beating down the doors to elected office in a way that, ironically, imposed a ceiling on their long-term career growth.
“We had to take it away,” said Donald Payne, the long-serving 72-year-old Congressman from Newark, N.J. “So we were looked on as troublemakers, people who were out of their place.”
Mr. Rangel and Mr. Payne have both championed a liberal, activist brand of politics rooted in their generation’s struggles and neatly suited for their districts, “majority-minority” jurisdictions protected by the federal Voting Rights Act. But their close association with racial politics isn’t seen as a winning recipe for statewide contests, which turn on suburban concerns.
Just look at the numbers: There are 43 black members of the U.S. House, but only one black Senator. And only once in American history has an African-American been elected governor of a state: Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder in 1989.
“There has been a perception that a black candidate would find it difficult to be accepted in the broader community—especially the older blacks, who had to break down the barriers,” Mr. Payne said.
It is that broader acceptance, though, that Mr. Obama has found—and not accidentally. In fact, his story is merely the most celebrated among those of a vanguard of up-and-coming African-American political leaders poised to break through the glass ceiling faced by the previous generation.
In Tennessee, for example, Harold Ford Jr., the African-American Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, has run one of the shrewdest campaigns in recent memory, staking out ideological turf far to the right of the leaders of the civil-rights generation—but perfectly in sync with the electorate of a state that is now reliably Republican.
Mr. Ford declares himself a believer in the Second Amendment—heresy to someone like Mr. Rangel, a vociferous gun-control proponent. And he bends over backward to assure voters that he thinks Nancy Pelosi—the would-be Democratic House Speaker already pre-emptively vilified by the right as a wacky left-coast feminist—is too liberal. Mr. Payne, by contrast, contends that Ms. Pelosi isn’t liberal enough.
There’s also Deval Patrick, whose “politics of hope” have made him a suburban folk hero and the all-but-certain next governor of Massachusetts—where just under 7 percent of the population is black.
And Artur Davis, a young, articulate and politically moderate Alabama Congressman who dislodged a civil-rights-era Democrat in a 2002 primary. In D.C., some members of the Congressional Black Caucus eye Mr. Davis warily. But he’s made it clear enough that there’s a statewide campaign in his future—not a slow ascent in the House based on seniority.
All of these leaders are one statewide victory from joining Mr. Obama on the short list for national office.
Indeed, there’s a school of thought that Mr. Obama’s ’08 decision will be guided in no small part by next month’s Senate election in Tennessee, where polls show Mr. Ford holding onto a narrow lead.
It remains an open question how many rural Tennesseans will actually check off the name of a black candidate in the privacy of a voting booth.
But the better Mr. Ford fares, the clearer it will be to Mr. Obama—and to his African-American contemporaries in Massachusetts, Alabama and elsewhere—that the era of Congressional seniority as their best route to power is over.