One of the most fascinating aspects of Barack Obama's electric popularity is how eagerly, like a Rorschach inkblot test, people see in him whatever they want to see.
To some folks, for example, he isn't just running for president; he's running for America's top black leader.
Some conservatives, in particular, can't wait to bum rush the current crop of media-anointed black leaders out the door.
"The big losers, two big losers tonight are probably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," my conservative column-writing colleague George Will observed on ABC's "Nightline" after the Illinois senator swept the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
The Revs. Sharpton and Jackson, Will said, were "representative of those who have a sort of investment in the traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States."
Conservative radio host Bill Bennett, former drug czar and education secretary, agreed that night on CNN. Obama "has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson, you don't have to act like Al Sharpton," Bennett said. "You can talk about the issues. Great dignity. And this is a breakthrough. And good for the people of Iowa."
I'm sure that Will and Bennett were only saying out loud what countless other folks are thinking. More than a few of Americans, regardless of race, have grown weary of politics that define people by race, ethnicity and other similarly narrow interest groups.
Obama has come to embody an escape route from all that, in many minds. As Will pointed out, "In a state with a negligible minority population, Mr. Obama was taken at face value as a normal candidate without identity politics involved." Good for Iowa.
Yet, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I suspect that reports of Jackson and Sharpton's irrelevance have been greatly exaggerated.
Jackson, for example, has endorsed Obama. His son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., (D., Illinois) also happens to be an Obama campaign co-chair. Yet, as if to prove that everyone in the family does not march in political lockstep, Mrs. Jacqueline Jackson, the civil rights leader's wife, has endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton, which undoubtedly makes fascinating dinner conversation in the Jackson household.
Sharpton lives in Clinton's home state but has withheld his endorsement of anyone. In some ways, that keeps him relevant by leaving everyone guessing. As controversial as Sharpton is, he carries enough clout in New York, at least to be an almost required stop by Democratic candidates. But nationally, Sharpton is so widely disliked and resented by white voters that he's probably doing Obama a favor by not endorsing him.
Sharpton has leveraged crusades of racial grievance into media stardom in his own right. He has a weekly television show on the cable-satellite TV One network and a daily radio program in 40 markets. They include the important primary state of South Carolina, where about half of the Democratic electorate is black. With his megaphone, you're better off running for office with him inside your tent shouting out than outside shouting in.
Sharpton was quick to issue a statement rebutting those who think Obama makes him yesterday's news. "This almost laughable notion has been repudiated consistently by Mr. Obama himself," Sharpton declared. He noted that Obama has made several high-profile appearances with him in and pointed out that, "The need for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't vanish when Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court."
Well, Sharpton's no King. Nevertheless, as eager as most of us Americans may be to get beyond race, we're not there yet. Racial issues and contradictions are too deeply woven into the fabric of American life for us to move beyond race with the casting of a single ballot.
"Does Obama's Win Show US Is Colorblind?" the Associated Press asked over a story two days after the caucuses. Well, no, I would answer, as long as his color still is worth a headline.
Toronto's Globe and Mail got closer to the heart of the matter with this headline: "Obama's Rise, America's Renewal; With black senator's win, a nation passes a milestone in maturing." Right on. We haven't grown out of our racially turbulent past, but we're growing out of it. That's worth celebrating. Cautiously.
As the campaign caravan moves into states that have higher numbers of black voters than Iowa or New Hampshire do, Obama and other candidates will be asked more often to respond to issues of great concern to black voters. I expect Obama to be ready for that. He has earned widespread praise for "transcending race," but the rest of American society has not.