The undeniable fact is that President Obama has gotten a racial pass from blacks. This tormenting fact ignited brief finger pointing between the Reverend Al Sharpton and talk show host Tavis Smiley. It’s hardly the first time that blacks publicly and more often privately have wrung their hands over Obama’s absolute unwillingness to say and do more for blacks. This prompts even more hand wringing over why blacks still give him an irrevocable pass. The hand wringing is as pointless as the demand for Obama to embrace a black agenda. It’s not going to happen, in fact it can’t happen.
Obama etched that in stone from the first day of his presidential campaign. In his candidate declaration speech in Springfield, Illinois in February 2007, he made only the barest mention of race. The focus was on change, change for everyone. He had little choice. The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped. Obama would have had no hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, let alone the presidency, if there had been any hint that he embraced the race-tinged politics of Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism.
Obama will cling tightly to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for a Democratic presidential candidate to win elections, and to govern after he won. The blueprint requires that the Democratic presidential candidate tout a strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, while escalating the Afghan conflict, mild proposals to control greenhouse emissions, limited tax reform for the middle class, a cautious plan for affordable health care, pro business solutions to joblessness, and make only the most genteel reproach of Wall Street, and then stick to this script once in the Oval Office. Race talk is nowhere to be found on a Democratic president’s must list. The only time that changed was midway through Clinton’s second term. With no reelection cares, Clinton made a mild, tepid, public relations glossed stab at setting up a race panel to talk about the plight of black America. The panel talked, and talked and talked some more, made a few half hearted recommendations for change, and then promptly forgot about them.
But that didn’t matter. Blacks still swooned, gushed, and reveled in the Clinton magic and mystique. In polls, he ranked even higher than Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan as the “black” leader blacks most liked. It’s no different with Obama. He’s a Democrat. For the past half century a Democratic presidential candidate has been guaranteed an automatic 85 to 90 percent of the black vote. Blacks have been the party’s loyalist foot soldiers even as blue collar whites, and a significant number of Latinos, and Asians defected to the GOP. The withering assault from assorted racists, kooks, cranks, zanies, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, tea baggers, and GOP ultra conservatives further guarantees that blacks fear if they utter the most bland and meek criticism it will give aid and comfort to the enemy, and earn a slap as a race traitor.
But Blacks also sincerely want him to succeed. That’s not solely out of a mix of race pride, the eternal thirst for positive black male role models, and his eloquence. They’re fervently convinced that he truly has their interests at heart, and even though he can’t spout a “black agenda” he’ll work hard, quietly, behind the scenes to improve conditions for the black poor and needy. Then there’s the horrific alternative of a GOP takeover. Blacks are in stark terror that a resurgent GOP will mean a sink back to greater impoverishment, political disempowerment, racial polarization, and even racial violence.
Obama has repeatedly protested to the black critics that he’s not the black president, but the president. He’s pulled and tugged hard by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas and all vie hard to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests.
If he gives the company store to Wall Street, waters down health care reform, and further bloats a bloated military, that’s the price anyone who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office, must pay to govern. The rules of presidential governance demand no less. Sharpton, the NAACP, Urban League, and the Congressional Black Caucus, have at times lightly chided Obama to do and say more for blacks, but they’re also realists. They’ll push him to work through the back door to increase spending and expand education, health care, and job creation programs for blacks. That’s more than enough reason they and most other blacks are willing to give him a racial pass.
- Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.