The instant that Barack Obama tossed his hat in the presidential rink nearly two years ago the twin mantra was that he could be the first black to be president and if that happened America had finally kicked its race syndrome. The twin mantra has been repeated ad infinitum, and it’s dead wrong about Obama and the presidency. The early hint that race was overblown and over obsessed came from Obama. He didn’t talk about it. For good reason, he was not running as a black presidential aspirant. He was running as a presidential aspirant. He had to make that crucial distinction for personal and political purposes.
The ritual preface of the word “black” in front of any and every achievement or breakthrough that an African-American makes is insulting, condescending and minimizes their achievement. It maintains and reinforces the very racial separation that much of America claims it is trying to get past. Dumping the historic burden of race on blacks measures an individual’s success or failure by a group standard. That’s a burden whites don’t have. They succeed or fail solely as individuals.
Obama’s personal history--his bi-racial parents, his upbringing, his education, and his relative youth-- defies racial pigeonholing. He was influenced by but not shaped by the rigid race grounded civil rights struggles of the 1960s as older whites and blacks were.
The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped anyway. Obama would have had no hope of bagging the presidency if there had been the slightest hint that he embraced the race tinged politics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism.
He could not have raised record amounts of campaign cash. He would not have been fawned over by legions of Hollywood celebrities, corporate and union leaders. He would not have netted the endorsements of Colin Powell and packs of former Reagan and Bush Sr. administration stalwarts, and prepped by W. Bush political guru Karl Rove on how to beat Hillary Clinton. The media would never have given him the top heavy favorable coverage, endorsements, nor relentlessly hammered Republican rival John McCain. If the media had so chosen, it could have torpedoed Obama’s campaign by playing up his connection with his race focused former pastor Jeremiah Wright. It bought his protest of racial bewilderment at the Wright race revelations, and dropped the matter.
Obama had to cling closely to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for Democrats to win elections, and to govern after he won.
It meant during the campaign and will mean at least in the early days of his presidency emphasis on strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, mild tax reform for the middle-class, a cautious plan for affordable health care and for dealing with the sub-prime lending crisis, and a gentile reproach of Wall Street.
The old axiom that you can tell a president-elect by his staff and cabinet picks will very much apply to Obama. A cast of governors, senators and ex senators, former Clinton and Democratic party operatives, and even a few token Republican mavericks have been floated for Obama’s staff and cabinet picks such as Al Gore, Tom Dachle, Tim Kaine, John Kerry, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, Chuck Hagel, Robert F, Kennedy, Tom Vilsack, and yes Arnold Schwarzenegger. The list reads like a who’s who of the Beltway and Heartland America establishment.
Obama’s cautious, center-governing non-racial, likely staff and cabinet cast and policies is plainly designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats, especially one branded a liberal Democrat, inherently pander to special interests, i.e. minorities, are pro expansive government, and anti-business. They will be watching hawk like for any sign of that from Obama.
As president Obama will be pulled and tugged at by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, moderate and conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas and all will vie to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests.
An Obama White House will of course be a historic and symbolic first. However, it will be a White House that keeps a firm, cautious and conciliatory eye on mid-America public opinion, and corporate and defense industry interests in making policy decisions and determining priorities. All other occupants of the White House have done that. Obama would and could not have attained the White House if he didn’t do the same. This has nothing to do with race, or the nonsense of being tagged a black president, first or not. It has everything to do with the requirement of White House governance.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).