Why Obama won and 2020's black candidates couldn't

Mr. Booker launched his campaign last Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. On the campaign trail and in interviews, he highlighted black voter “suppression,” supported slavery reparations, and called for drug legalization to keep a “racist” criminal justice system from targeting black people. The only reason anyone will even remember that Ms. Harris ran for president is because of her confrontation with Joe Biden over segregation and forced busing during the first Democratic debates. The two senators made race in general, and their own race in particular, a central part of their message, and it couldn’t even get them to the Iowa caucuses.

This is identity-politics campaigning in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and we know how their presidential bids turned out. Moreover, it’s close to the antithesis of how Mr. Obama ran. The former president understood both that he couldn’t win without white voters and that those voters had repeatedly rejected black presidential candidates who took confrontational approaches to racial issues. In his 2007 book about Mr. Obama’s first White House run, “A Bound Man,” Shelby Steele surmises that the future president was so skillful at winning over white audiences because he was a “bargainer,” or someone who appeals to whites by agreeing not to play up the country’s ugly racial history in return for not having his skin color held against him.