Everyone’s heard President Barack Obama proclaim, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” Everyone also understands that his historic role isn’t quite that simple.
The New York Times’ Jodi Cantor, in a piece this weekend, unpacked the way some see him balancing his belief in universal politics not based on race with an “embrace of black life and its challenges,” and attempting to change stereotypes while doing so:
Vigilant about not creating racial flash points, the president is private and wary on the subject, and his aides carefully orchestrate White House appearances by black luminaries and displays of black culture. Those close to Mr. Obama say he grows irritated at being misunderstood — not just by opponents who insinuate that he caters to African-Americans, but also by black lawmakers and intellectuals who fault him for not making his presidency an all-out assault on racial disparity.
“Tragically, it seems the president feels boxed in by his blackness,” the radio and television host Tavis Smiley wrote in an e-mail. “It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated, cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” he continued, adding that “African-Americans will have lost ground in the Obama era.”
Such criticism leaves the president feeling resentful and betrayed, aides said, by those he believes should be his allies. The accusations are “an assault on his being,” said David Axelrod, his chief strategist — not to mention a discomfiting twist in a re-election fight in which the turnout of black voters, who express overwhelming loyalty to the president but also some disappointment, could sway the result.
But like an actor originating a role on Broadway, Mr. Obama has been performing a part that no one else has ever played, and close observers say they can see him becoming as assured on race in public as he is in private conversation. In 2009, the new president’s statement on the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer set off days of negative headlines; in 2012, he gave a commanding but tender lament over the killing of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a white man.
Read more at the New York Times.