Has racism, not incompetence, hobbled the Obama presidency?
posted at 2:39 pm on August 26, 2012 by Howard Portnoy
If you thought the twin subjects of race and racism as they pertain to Barack Obama had finally wheezed their last when a black MSNBC host charged Mitt Romney with “n**gerizing” the president, think again.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, has a piece in the magazine’s September issue titled “Fear of a Black President.” There appears to be a deliberate ambiguity in that title inasmuch as the essay goes on to imply that the fear is Obama’s—that he has perforce walked on eggshells throughout his presidency because America is still not ready to accept a black man as its leader.
To paraphrase Jerry Maguire’s most famous line, Coates lost me at monument to moderation, an unintentionally humorous phrase he uses to describe the Obama presidency. As evidence, Coates writes:
He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square.
The claims are not untrue, just lacking context. When Obama took his case for raising the debt ceiling to the American people in a nationally televised speech on July 25, 2011, he did mention Ronald Reagan and other conservatives. Here is what he said: “President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times.” What he didn’t say on this occasion but said previously, back when he was a U.S. senator and voted no to a measure to raise the debt ceiling under George W. Bush, was, “the fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills.”
Although I had trouble making it through the entire 10,000-word essay (my mind began to drift around about Chapter 12), The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie apparently did read the piece through to the end. In his own analysis, which describes the article as “fantastic” (presumably a synonym in Bouie’s lexicon for long), he predicts that “Coates will inspire howls of unfairness from the right,” adding:
It’s almost forbidden to discuss the role racism has played in shaping opposition to Obama. Conservatives dismiss such concerns as ‘playing the race card’—and use it as an opportunity to accuse liberals of racism—while more neutral commentators note that Bill Clinton also faced a rabid conservative opposition. But as Coates points out, no one called Clinton a ‘food stamp president‘ or attacked his health care plan as ‘reparations.’ Local lawmakers didn’t circulate racist jokes about the former Arkansas governor, and right-wing provocateurs didn’t accuse Clinton of fomenting an anti-white race war.
The opening claim—that it is “almost forbidden to discuss the role racism has played in shaping opposition to Obama”—is ludicrous. It is hard to recall a month that has gone by since Obama was sworn into office when someone on the left, black or otherwise, hasn’t accused some or all on the right of racism.
The problem with the complaint about the labels that have been hung around Obama’s neck is that most of them reflect views held by radical fringe elements of the Republican party. These include the birther movement, which Coates cites as another indicator of the hostility uniquely directed toward Obama because he is black. Coates conveniently overlooks the truther movement that similarly dogged President George W. Bush after 9/11, even inspiring a “documentary.” The “food stamps president” label is more mainstream, but the claim that it has racist intent is in the mind and eye of the beholder.
Bouie offers up his own grievances about the double standard Obama has faced as the nation’s first black president, writing:
The power and symbolism of Obama’s election is compromised by the extent to which his presidency has been shaped by white expectations and white racism. Obama can’t show anger, he can’t propose policies tailored to African Americans and he can’t talk about race. In other words, he can’t remind white Americans that their president is a black man as much as anything else.
Whether Obama has shown anger in some of his more impassioned speeches is a matter of personal judgment (to this observer he sounds plenty angry in this sermon to his base in Congress). As to the arguments that he “he can’t propose policies tailored to African Americans and he can’t talk about race,” has can and he has.
Bouie must have been out sick on July 26 of this year when the president signed an executive order to improve educational outcomes for African Americans. Included in the initiative was a directive to form a Federal Interagency Working Group on Educational Excellence for African Americans—presumably on the taxpayers’ dime. As for Obama talking about race, for Bouie’s convenience I provide a link to the text and video of “A More Perfect Union” (aka, Obama’s Race Speech), which he delivered on Nov. 17, 2008. If Obama hasn’t spoken at length about race since, it is because so many of his surrogates, including Mssrs. Bouie and Coates, have done so on his behalf.
If Barack Obama is unelected on Nov. 6, it will be because of his failures in office, not because of an oppositional Republican-led House and certainly not because of the color of his skin.
In parting it is worth noting that if the nation were as racist as the two black authors cited herein believe it is, the TV host mentioned in the opening paragraph, Touré, would be sending out résumés right now. Instead, his tepid apology for his obscene coinage was sufficient to ensure his continuing employment by a network that remains stubbornly mum on the whole affair.
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