Capitol Hill reporters relentless peppered White House press secretary Robert Gibbs with questions of why the White House rushed to judgment and demanded the resignation of Shirley Sherrod. A clearly flustered Gibbs could only say and repeat that the White House made its horrible decisions on faulty information. Gibbs promised a review to get to the bottom of why and how it happened. The surface reason the White House dumped Sherrod was made on faulty information, a doctored video, and simple ignorance of the true facts. It wouldn't have taken much of an investigation to find the truth. That wasn't done. Former Civil Rights Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry and others claim that Obama is scared stiff of being ripped by Fox News, Limbaugh, Beck and the conservative smear machine. That's just as spurious. If Obama sneezes, they'd attack him for polluting the Ozone, so there's no real fear of them. The decision to can Sherrod had everything to do with politics, and the tight cornered racial parameter of his presidency.
This was set the very 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 Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism. The month after he got in the White House he mildly chided Attorney General Eric Holder for calling Americans cowards for not candidly talking about race.
The term for that is racial overcompensation. He must react, hard and swift, to any appearance of anyone connected with his administration that says or does anything that can be construed as racial favoritism. The doctored Sherrod speech was a near textbook fit of the requirement to punish any real, imagined, or put up racial transgression with firing, reprimand, and a quick distancing from the offending party.
Obama got a bitter taste of the misery that race can cause a president him when in an unscripted moment he spoke his mind and blasted a Cambridge cop for cuffing and manhandling Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. The loud squeals that he was a bigot, racist and anti police for siding with Gates bounced off the Oval Office walls. A chagrined Obama back pedaled fast and asked all for forgiveness. There would no White House repeat of the Gates fiasco.
Obama has clung 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, tepid proposals to control greenhouse emissions, mild 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.
The Clinton blueprint also requires a Democratic president to formulate a moderate agenda on civil rights, poverty, failing inner city public schools, the HIV-AIDS crisis, and the racially skewed criminal justice system in written policy statements. And then say little about them or low key their approach to them in the White House. Obama's silence, extreme low key approach to these policy issues, occasional reminder that he's the American president, not black president irked the Congressional Black Caucus and at times other civil rights groups.
Obama well knows that the GOP lost an election, but it still packs a punch. It and its tea party shock troops can disrupt, obstruct, and create chaos for his administration, his political agenda, and him personally. And it does it not only because that's the warfare that Republicans wage against Democrats anyway, but because the GOP has masterfully reignited its populist base against Obama. The base is rock solid conservative, lower income white male loyalists, with a heavy mix of hard line Christian fundamentalists. Despite the GOP's and tea party activists wail that racism has nothing to do with the white fury at Obama, the bitter truth is that many white voters do not and will not accept a black president.
If Obama talked candidly about race and tried to spark a dialogue on race as some clamor for him to do it would turn his administration into a referendum on race. This would turn the GOP and tea party counterinsurgency into a red hot fire.
Obama's rush to judgment on Sherrod had nothing to do with fear and only tangentially with a terrible misread of the information about her purported racial statement. It had everything to do with the price of White House governance. The price is a politically constricted, race neutral presidency.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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