Blogs > HNN > Obama and race

Dec 15, 2007 11:53 am

Obama and race

We keep saying Obama's being black is a major impediment to his candidacy. This has the logic of obviousness. We've never elected a black man president. Are we ready to now?

But maybe we're asking the wrong question. A better question, I think, is this:

Would Barack Obama be plausible as a candidate for the presidency at this stage in his career if he weren't black?

I doubt it.

What other senator with as little experience in national politics has ever run for the office after just 2 years in the Senate? Even John Edwards (elected 1998) had more experience under his belt when he first ran for president in 2004--and he was making a run for the White House earlier in his career than any other candidate in modern history except for Estes Kefauver. (Elected in 1948 from Tennessee, Kefauver ran for president in 1952 after winning acclaim for his nationally televised crime hearings.)

Obama's blackness, far from being a liability, is an asset. He has exploited it to gain a prominence he otherwise couldn't hope to achieve as quickly.

In his non-threatening manner--which he augments at every turn by emphasizing his reasonableness (he's the anti-Jesse Jackson)--he is everything white America would want in a BLACK president.

But is it what we should want in a president? Don't presidents have to be unreasonable at times? Politics isn't rational. It's more like a hockey game where defiance and hard sticks count for as much as talent and luck.

Obama could grow in office. After all FDR did. Roosevelt in 1932 had tried to be all things to all people, and by 1936 he was wailing that the rich hated him and "I welcome their hatred." But Obama is trapped by the myth of his own making. He's not a snarling pit bull like, say, Al Sharpton. That's what makes him plausible as a candidate. And were he to change in office into a harder-edged politician white America would likely respond negatively.

Having elected a nice black man, they wouldn't know what to make of a tough version.

No white man of course has to worry about this kind of reinvention. We expect our (white) leaders to be tough. But a black man does. It could reinforce all the negative stereotypes Obama has so successfully evaded until now.

In a way he's got the woman's problem Hillary faces--in reverse. She has had to prove in life that she's tough even though she's a woman. He's had to prove that he's soft. Both are battling stereotypes.

But Hillary has it easier. She can pivot and soften her image without penalty. He can't harden his image ever
without worrying that millions will resent him the way they resent Jesse Jackson.

Related Links

  • David Greenberg: Article in Dissent on the books presidential candidates have published, with a nice take on Obama's two books.

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    More Comments:

    Nancy Brown - 3/31/2008

    He is also a master at rhetoric, which many have noted. Today I re-listened to him speak about how his opponents want him to "spend more time in Washington" and "take the hope out of him." Not at all what people are saying. Depth and length of governing experience does not have to be in Washington, and people with hope and other positive characteristics are very much needed.

    Nancy Brown - 3/31/2008

    He is also a master at rhetoric, which many have noted. Today I re-listened to him speak about how his opponents want him to "spend more time in Washington" and "take the hope out of him." Not at all what people are saying. Depth and length of governing experience does not have to be in Washington, and people with hope and other positive characteristics are very much needed.

    Jeff Shear - 1/4/2008

    This question about Obama turns out to be the most provocative one I can raise with people when the discussion turns to presidential politics. It's amazing to watch how the expression on people's faces changes, reflecting, I assume, the tiny synaptic explosions rattling around their brains. To a person -- and I admit that this is hardly a scientific survey -- the reaction is the same: Obama wouldn't be in the race if it were not for the issue of race. Just as interesting, no one questions whether I've violated some rule of political correctness. In fact, seem to share the same thought: hey, why didn't I think of that. The questionof race puts Obama's campaign into perspective. It leaves you to wonder who he is: A John Edwards with benefits? (Not to disparage either man.) To me, Obama is the single greatest orator I've heard in my lifetime, with the possible exception of JFK, who wasn't exactly over-qualified himself.

    HNN - 12/18/2007

    To borrow a line from the philosopher Rodney King: Can't we all just get along?

    Unfortunately, we can't.

    Confrontation is often required to get things done. To mobilize people behind them, leaders must often draw lines in the sand. They must intimidate their adversaries at home and their enemies abroad.

    Obama as president would have to do this. At that moment, whether it was in front of the cameras or behind them, he would confront the contradictions of his candidacy.

    Colin Powell, to take another black leader, would not have faced the problem Obama has. He built his reputation on experience and acts. When he played tough it seemed in character.

    But Obama is deliberately crafting an image of softness. He is doing this out of necessity. Unlike Powell, he doesn't have any achievements to his name. He can't break the stereotypes by pointing to anything he has done. Instead, he breaks the stereotypes by claiming to be a certain kind of person.

    But can he maintain that ideal once he has to get in the bear pit of politics and fight for what he believes?

    That's what I am doubtful of.

    MY guess is that after a honeymoon he would discover the Republicans won't make nice, other Democrats won't make nice, and he has to twist arms, wield power, and use muscle. Who then would this president be?

    E. Simon - 12/17/2007

    I don't really understand the premise of the article. A president should be able to be tough, but not necessarily tough ON the American people. And it seems more than likely that Obama would be able to be tough - in private - to the special interests that he derides his competitors for being beholden to, thereby obviating any hypothetical need to display it publicly.

    Ed Schmitt - 12/10/2007

    Among the many intriguing aspects of Obama's candidacy and presidency is that he might potentially confound so many of the old ways of thinking, and perhaps at least begin a new dialogue about the absurdity of American racial categories. It seems ridiculous to have to restate the obvious, but Mr. Obama is bi-racial. Certainly the weight of American social history and the specter of "one drop" laws of the Jim Crow still cast a long and enduring shadow in our popular thought, but race is a raft which carries such an odd assortment of social freight. Hence Andrew Young's bizarre comments over the weekend (which do have a logic rooted in lived experience). I would not suggest that anyone vote for Sen. Obama on the basis of his ancestry - he has other virtues that merit serious consideration - and I'm not necessarily endorsing him (as if that would have any weight at all). But among the many interesting offshoots of an Obama presidency can be, just perhaps, a new opening for discussing race and moving beyond the deadly damaging absurdities of the past. And along with the suffering of the past, Obama gets some of the absurdity - that's why he gets such great mileage out of his joke about his "black sheep cousin," Dick Cheney. It is certainly right to have great reservations about this nation's capacity to make racial progress, but I take heart in the progressive attitudes of many young people, and in the towering cultural successes of the past decade or so, such as the pantheon of beloved American icons including my favorite Asian golfer, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. :)