WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is making a habit of telling people things they don't necessarily want to hear on subjects ranging from fuel standards and fatherhood to homophobia and teacher pay.
The technique is winning the Illinois senator some attention and helping stoke broad interest in his candidacy but could hurt him among black voters, campaign observers say.
Campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs says Obama is not going to "pander his way" through the race.
His positions "may or may not be the priorities of every group, but he feels like he needs to say them anyway. Some of them may not be what is in a traditional political playbook" for Democrats, Gibbs says. As for venues, "Obviously he's going to look for places where his message is well covered."
Some of Obama's recent statements and where he made them:
•Asked about AIDS at a minority issues forum June 28 at Howard University, Obama said homosexuality still carries "a stigma" in black communities. "It has been an aspect of sometimes a homophobia, that we don't address this issue as clearly as it needs to be," he said.
•At a National Education Association meeting last week in Philadelphia, Obama reiterated his support for merit pay for teachers. The teachers union says merit pay forces teachers to compete rather than cooperate and doesn't solve the underlying problem of low pay.
•A couple of days before Father's Day, at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., the senator spoke about the responsibilities of fathers: "There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."
•In Detroit, Obama scolded the auto industry for failing to develop "clean cars" and unveiled a plan for tough fuel-efficiency requirements.
Obama's approach in some ways recalls Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment" in June 1992. Speaking to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, Clinton called the black singer's comments about killing white people "filled with hatred" and compared her to one time Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Clinton was making clear that "he could be tough on blacks," says Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "He was reaching out … to alienated whites and Democrats, trying to give them a reason to vote for him."
Walters says Obama's goal and means are similar. "I have to question to what extent he'll be able to capture the lion's share of the black vote with that particular strategy," Walters says. He also says Obama "has no choice" if he wants to win: He must counter the assumption that because he's black, he'll have a "wild progressive agenda."
Obama drew 40% black support last month in Gallup's annual Minority Relations poll, followed closely by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at 38%.
Thomas Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, says Obama makes his points "in a very calm, measured way" that reinforces his broader message that "the time has come to try to bridge some differences and deal with real problems confronting people."
Mann also says Obama balances his edgier ideas with words his audiences can embrace: In Detroit, an offer to help automakers with retiree health costs. In Philadelphia, a promise on merit pay that "I'm not going to do it to you, I'm going to do it with you." In Spartanburg, acknowledgment that the government needs to do more to help black men get education and jobs.
Some candidates this year have records and positions unpopular with the audiences they often face. Republican debates have featured Rudy Giuliani defending his support for legal abortion and John McCain explaining why he'd let millions of illegal immigrants earn citizenship.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., split with anti-war activists to support funding the Iraq war. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, talking about universal health care at a union forum in February, said: "Our solution is always to increase taxes, and we shouldn't."
Obama has a history of taking messages directly to the source. Raised by a single mother from the age of 2, when his father went home to Africa, Obama addressed the problem of absentee fathers at his own Chicago church in 2005. After a skewering later that year by online activists, he asked them directly to be more civil and less judgmental.
Obama's "small lapses" from the party line this year "prevent him from being a generic Democrat," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "That makes him very interesting to a lot of people who might otherwise tune him out: independents, moderates, swing voters and would-be Republican defectors."