Shelby Steele of the conservative Hoover Institution argues in a new book that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has generated excitement not because he's the first black person to run for president but rather because he's the first black "bargainer" to do so.
The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, in Steele's view, are "challengers" -- they make whites feel guilty. Obama, in Steele's view, plays the "bargainer" -- he agrees not to shame Americans with the history of slavery and segregation and whites respond with enormous gratitude.
But despite the novelty of a "bargainer" running for president, Steele argues in "A Bound Man: Why We're Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can't Win" that the Democratic presidential front-runner is in a bind.
Even though he is, in Steele's estimation, "quite good" at "articulating black responsibility," his long struggle to "prove his blackness" requires him to see blacks as "society's children."
"Obama doesn't get it," said Steele in an interview with ABCNEWS.com. "He wants to make black responsibility contingent on what whites do, on what the government does, and on what school systems do and so forth."
"Good luck," he added. "You keep advocating that and blacks will be on the bottom forever."
Steele thinks Obama's alleged insecurity about his racial identity explains not only his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also his continued support for affirmative action and refusal to say whether he would have signed the welfare overhaul approved by former President Clinton in 1996.
It also explains, in Steele's view, why Obama said during a recent "Nightline" interview that blacks do not have the "luxury" of being "selective" when it comes to other blacks.
'Incentives to Responsibility'
Steele accuses Obama in his book of making personal responsibility contingent on the government delivering school reform and other systemic changes. He makes this accusation even though Obama has talked about responsibility as long as he has been on the national stage.
"Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white," said Obama in the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that catapulted him to national prominence.
Before this year's New Hampshire primary, Obama included the theme of parental responsibility in a television ad. "We need parents to turn off the television and instill in our children a sense of excellence."
Despite his repeated references to responsibility, Steele believes that power is diluted because Obama is bound to what Steele calls "the anti-responsibility political left" where the focus is on "white responsibility for black difficulty."
This incenses Steele, who is half-black and half-white, because he thinks Obama's life teaches the necessity of self-help.
In his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama recounts how, when he was living in Indonesia, his mother rose at 4:30 a.m. to work with him on a lesson plan that was more advanced than the one offered at his school.
Steele points to his mother's efforts, and nothing the system did for him, as the reason why he became the editor of The Harvard Law Review.
"For his own mother," writes Steele, "apparently, responsibility was a rigid creed. He says of her, 'The idea that my survival depended on luck remained a heresy to her; she insisted on assigning responsibility. . .'"
After lauding Obama's mother, Steele raps the Illinois senator for offering "no thinking on how to build incentives to responsibility into actual social policy."
"He needs to go a lot farther than the bromide about turning off the TV," Steele told ABC News. "He has to actually try to instill a larger concept of personal responsibility in black people, and others as well, who at this point in our history, lack that concept and are suffering because they lack that concept."
Asked about the criticism, Obama's campaign rejected Steele's view that pushing for school reform undermines the candidate's call for parental responsibility.
"Obama believes that both school reform and increased parental involvement are critical," an Obama policy adviser told ABCNEWS.com. "He rejects either-or formulations. That's why in his comprehensive pre-K to 12 education plan, he features a separate and independent section on parental involvement and offers concrete suggestions [such as districts adopting 'school-family contracts'] to encourage parents to get more involved."
The Illinois senator's campaign also maintained that Steele's book overlooks Obama's support for a "Responsible Fatherhood" bill that pursues a "carrot and stick" approach. It funds support services while removing some of the government penalties on married families and cracking down on men who avoid child support payments.
The Obama campaign also points to transitional job programs, prison-to-work programs and a nurse-partnership program to educate young mothers as evidence that Obama, contrary to Steele's claim, has proposed "incentives to responsibility."
During a May 2007 interview with ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Obama indicated that a college admissions officer should not cut his two daughters any slack.
"I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," said Obama.
But despite the widely covered comment about his two daughters, Obama continues to favor race-based affirmative action in higher education while also supporting affirmative action for low-income students regardless of race.
Steele thinks Obama's comments to Stephanopoulos "skirted almost all of the obvious problems of affirmative action in a very glib way."
"The fact of the matter," said Steele, "is affirmative action would apply to his daughters as it is currently being practiced. And, in fact, it applies more to privileged blacks than it does to lower-class blacks because [lower-class blacks] are not in a position to benefit."
"[Affirmative action] did more damage to black America than segregation did," he continued. "I want to have a feeling that Barack Obama understands that and is going to build policy out of that."
Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope" that he has come around to the view that conservatives and former President Clinton were right that by detaching income from work, the old welfare system sapped individuals of initiative.
At the same time, Obama has been guarded about whether he would have signed the welfare reform bill approved by Clinton if the Illinois Democrat had been president in 1996.
Speaking to ABCNEWS.com March 14, 2007, after a speech to a group of firefighters, Obama said, "I tend not to look back to what would have been done 10 years ago. We're talking about what I'm going to be doing for the next 10 years."
During a July 17 news conference with Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, Obama refused for a second time to answer whether he would have signed the welfare-reform bill.
"I'm not going to re-litigate what happened back in the 90s," Obama told ABC News. "I'm talking about what's going to happening going forward. Bill Clinton isn't on the ballot."
The refusal to take a stand on the bill signed by Clinton was panned by Steele.
"That's cowardice. That's just cowardice," said Steele. "There's no excuse for not saying that. He knows better. He's just, once again, equivocating."
"I'm sure he was opposed to it at the time," Steele added. "I hope he's not now. I hope at this point he would at least recognize the profound service that was to black Americans."
Asked about welfare reform, Obama's campaign said that the Illinois Democrat viewed the 1996 legislation as flawed, adding that he would have liked to have seen the Clinton administration fight harder against its punitive aspects.
As an Illinois state senator, Obama sought to ameliorate the federal bill's punitive aspects by pushing for an increase in state spending on child care.
After the March 18 speech in which he addressed incendiary remarks by Wright, Obama told ABC News' Terry Moran that blacks do not have "the luxury" of "being selective."
"During the course of this campaign," said Obama, "there have been moments where people say, 'Well, I like Barack Obama, but not Al Sharpton. I like Colin Powell, but not Jesse. I like Oprah, but.' You know, those of us who are African-American don't have the luxury."
Asked by Moran what he meant by saying blacks "don't have the luxury," Obama said, "I don't have the luxury of separating myself out and being selective, in terms of what it means to be an African-American in this society. It's a big complex thing. It's not monolithic."
Steele told ABCNEWS.com that he considered Obama's comments to be revealing.
"It's a very interesting statement. It's profound," said Steele. "What would be keeping him from having the right to be selective about all of those people? Of course he has the right to be selective."
"What he is really saying is that he's afraid," Steele continued. "What Obama is saying is, 'I'm afraid if I am less than receptive to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they're going to call me an Uncle Tom, they're going to call me a sellout.' The terror of Barack Obama's life has been that blacks would reject him. That's why I call him a bound man."
ABC News' Jacqueline Klingebiel, Mike Elmore, and Talal Al-Khatib contributed to this report.