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Obama Breaks Political Ground En Route to Nomination

June 4, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama claimed victory Tuesday in the Democratic nominating battle, poising himself to become the first black presidential candidate to compete in a general election for a major political party. Historians and analysts discuss Obama's history-making moment.
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GWEN IFILL: When Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination last night, he instantly added a new page to the nation’s history books. For more on the significance of this turn of political events, we are joined by Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.”

Maria Echaveste, lecturer in residence at the University of California at Berkeley Law School, she served as assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff in the Bill Clinton White House.

And House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. He endorsed Barack Obama only yesterday.

Professor Joseph, I want to start by talking a little bit about the history. It seems like a lot of new ground was broken, race and gender. History was made. Did it change things?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Certainly. This is an extraordinary moment in American history and, really, a deep progression of American democracy, having the first African-American presidential candidate in a country where, just 43 years ago, the president, another Democrat, signed a Voting Rights Act that he said, basically, gave away the South for a generation because of the racial divisions that we perceived.

Arc of history

Rep. James Clyburn
Majority Whip
That was very emotional for me, so much so, until just before his speech, I left the company of the people that I was in and went home to watch it alone.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Clyburn, I heard that in an interview with our public television station in South Carolina today you described that you were a little emotional last night as you watched the results come in. Why is that?

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), South Carolina: Well, I was. I am a representative from South Carolina, the state where Brown v. Board of Education started out as Briggs v. Elliot in Clarendon County, a state where they gave this country Strom Thurmond, who bolted the Democratic Party 60 years ago this year, 1948.

Strom Thurmond ran for president on the state's rights ticket because he did not like the idea of a Democratic Party putting into its platform a plank on race, because we wanted to try to integrate the Armed Services.

Here we are, 60 years later, nominating an African-American to be president of the United States. It's a 60-year evolution, and that spans almost my entire lifetime.

And that was very emotional for me, so much so, until just before his speech, I left the company of the people that I was in and went home to watch it alone.

GWEN IFILL: Maria Echaveste, you just heard Congressman Clyburn talk about the 60-year arc of history. You obviously were or are a Hillary Clinton supporter. Do you think that some of the bad feelings left over in the wake of this very close race might obscure some of the progress that's been made or exacerbate some of the divisions that exist?

MARIA ECHAVESTE, former Clinton administration White House official: Well, I think it has been a long haul, but there's no question that it is historic. And I would submit that it will really be historic, the kind of page turning, when he wins in November.

And that is what I'm most concerned about, that we begin to try to heal the party and particularly focus on those parts of the electorate, for example, Hispanic voters, who are going to have to get to know Senator Obama so we can be sure that he wins in November.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about Hispanic voters. Are they poised now to become another kind of history-making political leverage block in this?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, I think we've seen in the course of certainly this election that the time has really come for Hispanic voters to be -- they can be swing voters.

I think that with -- the Republican Party, by choosing Senator McCain, is really poised to try to continue to hold 40 percent or more of the Hispanic vote that President Bush got in 2004. And so Senator Obama has his work cut out for him.

But I think there are many, many people who understand that winning in November is critical for Democrats for this country. And people are going to be working very hard in the days to come.

Firsts in age and race

Peniel Joseph
Brandeis University
I think we're seeing the generational transformation is still connected to race, but certainly voters who are under 45 years old, under 40 years old, are much more receptive to the idea of a black commander-in-chief.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Joseph, a lot of firsts last night. Not only did you have this come down to an African-American man and a woman, and they've only ever had white males as president, but also there's a big generation gap, a big gap, certainly, in age between Senator McCain and Barack Obama. How much of a generational history that's being made may overshadow even the racial history that's being made?

PENIEL JOSEPH: It certainly is a generational transformation. Many of Obama's younger supporters really view race through a different prism and a different lens.

Many were born after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and have lived in the kind of diverse setting that the civil rights movement and the social movements of the 1960s fought and struggled for.

So, for many of these new voters, Obama is looked upon as a leader first and a black man second.

When we think about McCain's supporters, we're talking about baby boomers and really the pre-baby boomers. Many of these supporters never imagined or could fathom a black man being president.

The exit polls find, even in the Democratic Party, race, one in seven voters viewed race as a factor. And two-thirds of those voters voted for Hillary Clinton. And half of those voters say they may be receptive to John McCain.

So I think we're seeing the generational transformation is still connected to race, but certainly voters who are under 45 years old, under 40 years old, are much more receptive to the idea of a black commander-in-chief.

GWEN IFILL: Let me follow up on something you said. In those exit polls you talk about, did they reveal a real divide in race that's going to come back to haunt this candidate in the fall? Maria Echaveste talks about this not really being history until November. Do you worry at all about what you've seen, pouring through these exit poll?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think what the exit polls reveal is that race is still a salient factor, one of many factors that are going to determine who the next president is going to be.

I think what Obama has done -- and this is what Hillary Clinton supporters have to realize and even Latino voters have to realize, as well -- it's the whole notion of "E pluribus unum" in terms of he's going beyond just race and saying that he's going to represent all Americans.

So it's not the old politics of sort of interest group politics, and we have the feminists or African-Americans or environmentalists, and we all want a piece of the pie. We want a transformation where one candidate actually represents all those interests, including the interest of white, working people and the white poor, as well.

Challenges still remain

Rep. James Clyburn
Majority Whip
I think there are people in our party, the Democratic Party, who will not vote for Barack Obama simply because of the color of his skin. I believe that.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Clyburn, we can't help but look back as we look forward here in this. And it's interesting that this summer at your convention in Denver, on the night that Barack Obama is scheduled to accept this nomination, is the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, the march on Washington.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: How significant is that? Is that a full circle for you? Or does it feel like there's still some way to go?

REP. JAMES CLYBURN: Well, there is some way to go. We cannot expect the election, in this instance, the presumptive nomination of an African-American to solve all of these problems. That's not going to happen.

What we can do, though, is take one more step toward living out the true meaning of that creed, that all of us are created equal. And that's a premise that we have been working for.

You know, we talk about to build a more perfect union, an admission that we don't have a perfect union. We're trying to build a more perfect union. And this is just another step in that.

And it will take more than one nomination, more than one election, for that matter, for us to get to where we need to be. But this is a very significant first step.

You've got to have a nominee before you have a candidate for president. And all of that must take place before one can get to be president. So we shouldn't discount the fact that we've taken that first step.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, you know, you've been a first. And I identified Barack Obama as the first African-American major party nominee. How significant is that, really?

REP. JAMES CLYBURN: It is very, very significant, but it's also very, very -- well, it calls for a lot of responsibility.

I wake up every morning trying to do what I can to dismiss all the myths that exist about African-Americans. I mean, that's a part of my purpose for living.

And that's why I was so proud of the way Barack Obama conducted his campaign. He did it in such a way that he established himself as someone that moved far beyond race. And I am so pleased that he did it the way he did it.

I think it is turning a page on our history, irrespective of what happens in November, though I'm going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that he is successful in November.

And I would hope -- and I want to say this, too. I think there are people in our party, the Democratic Party, who will not vote for Barack Obama simply because of the color of his skin. I believe that.

But I also believe that there are a lot of Republicans and a great many of independents who will neutralize all of that, because there's going to be a lot of people -- I know of many Republicans who have told me that they are going to be voting for Barack Obama.

Polling for America's future

Maria Echaveste
Former Clinton administration official
What I'm concerned is I don't want him to be a footnote. I really want him to be the president of the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Maria Echaveste about that. Do you think that this campaign has sufficiently changed whatever divisions existed in our political conversation about race?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: I think it certainly has gone a very long way. And I want to be clear: I don't want to diminish at all what Senator Obama has accomplished by becoming the presumptive nominee.

What I'm concerned is I don't want him to be a footnote. I really want him to be the president of the United States.

And I agree with Congressman Clyburn that, across the country, unfortunately, there continue to be some people who can't get past looking at someone because of their ethnicity or the color of the skin. But there are many more people -- and that's what's so wonderful about this country -- there's an optimism and a hope.

Remember, elections are about the future. And the American people, through this long, contorted campaign process, have decided that Senator Obama represents the future that they want to believe in.

And so it's up to us in the party to find ways to talk to each other and ultimately work out a way so that we can actually put this country back in the right direction.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, does it matter how quickly your candidate, Hillary Clinton, wraps things up formally in order for that to happen?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: You know, I don't think so. And I'll say this: You know, for weeks and months, there's been this steady drumbeat of, "She should get out. She should get out. It's inevitable. It's inevitable."

The reality is she came very close to winning and she needs some space. We all need some space to sort of get over our grief, because you put your heart and soul into arguing and convincing the country that you're the better candidate.

She will, as she said yesterday, and as she's said in several phone calls that I got to participate in, she will do, as we will all do, what is necessary that can best assure a Democratic victory in November.

GWEN IFILL: Maria Echaveste, Congressman Jim Clyburn, Professor Peniel Joseph, thank you all very much.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN: Well, thank you so much for having us.

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Thank you.

PENIEL JOSEPH: You're welcome.