Image concerns veil issues

Senator Barack Obama’s campaign volunteers prevented two of his supporters from sitting behind him during a rally June 16 because the women were wearing Islamic head scarves, the New York Times reported. The volunteer was worried the women, who would be on camera, would link the candidate to Islam.

Obama’s campaign has struggled with reports that he’s Muslim, a concept not readily accepted by some of the white, working-class voters he’s hoping to attract. Obama, a Christian, personally called the two women to apologize on Thursday.

It was a smart political move from all sides: voters for whom a candidate’s religious affiliation is important are once again reassured of Obama’s Christian identity and people who were worried he was casting Islam as a negative belief are now mollified by his apology.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a one-time occurrence but the actions point to the much deeper problem of image-conscious American politics. It’s disturbing his campaign had to make the move at all.

This isn’t the first time in this election candidates have been called out for things unrelated to their campaign issues. The media, many times the instigator of is-he-or-isn’t-he speculation, was quick to point out three Obama supporters wore Abercrombie & Fitch shirts when standing onscreen behind him at a rally in Indiana April 23. There was talk he was trying to attract the uppermiddle class vote, the gay vote, or whatever stereotype the clothing brand is associated with, until the men confirmed the obvious on CNN—they just like wearing A&F.

It’s no surprise candidates feel forced to play the superficial image game in order to reach the top. Real issues take a backseat to candidates’ “electability,” political jargon for which candidate can come across as the most patriotic, all-American. Unfortunately for Obama, this means being wary of visible minorities and resistance to change.

He faces a unique challenge because, as a black candidate, he has to toe the line between representing the change he promises and maintaining the status quo to attract traditional voters. Judging from the recent issue, he seems to have adopted the latter tone, preferring to change the system only after he has secured his victory.

Although it was a good move in a campaign where perceptions overshadow facts, Obama has opened up a can of worms on how far he should play the game and when it will be safe for him to start acting on his words of change.

He won this battle, but Obama needs to seriously consider where his priorities lie before he begins to lose the respect of voters.

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