The torrent of analysis and appraisal, hagiography and scorn leveled at Barack Obama’s first 100 days will be relatively quiet on the issue of race. That’s shocking when you consider how all-consuming the issue was during his campaign for the White House.
There is a perfectly obvious explanation: The Obama presidency, which so far has been a whirlwind of policymaking and legislation, crisis management and confidence-building, international diplomacy and domestic firefights, has been relatively quiet on the issue of race.
Consider the landscape. Obama has had to take steps to help bail out the world banking system; save the world’s largest insurer; rescue the American auto industry and an American sea captain held captive by pirates; pass a stimulus package and a budget and explain how, together, they were going to be the salvation of the sickly U.S. economy. And, these last couple of weeks, he’s had to walk the damn dog.
Under these circumstances, it’s only reasonable to expect mediations on racial progress and the “historic nature of this presidency” to slip down the priority list. To hear him tell it: “That lasted about a day.”
Obama’s response to the race question is of a piece with his overall message to the American people: “We’ve been busy.” But underlying the on-message nature of that answer, there is also a what-did-you-expect quality to the entire debate about how race would affect the tenure of the first black president. I have said that American presidents tend to look more like each other than they look like anything or anyone else. When he started to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan and the French and the North Koreans, Obama was going to look more like George W. Bush, whatever their differences, than he did candidate Obama.
Maybe it’s the big plane or the personal theme music; maybe it’s the fact that there has been only 44 of them. Regardless of their beginnings, their ideological stripes, and now, their race, American presidents come to embody the office more than they represent anything else. The most apt comparisons are with each other. Interestingly, Obama is likened to Reagan more than he is to Clinton. He’s tried hardest to link himself to FDR and Lincoln.
Presidents get judged on only one thing—the way in which they use, or don’t use, the power of their office to change the country. It is an all-encompassing judgment, in which there is no room for narrow constituency politics, even though that temptation is hard to resist. Politicians like to say—in one of the many apocryphal aphorisms intended to conceal the fact that they often have no idea of what they are doing or talking about—that there is no Republican or Democratic way to build a bridge or fix a pothole. Well, there is no way to be the black president of the United States.
Which is not to say that the fact that the president of the United States is black is not a source of enormous, almost inexpressible, joy for a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world. But that’s about us, not him.
There are some who discern a blackness in Obama’s style. He is described as cool, a big component of which is that he’s black. Same with the Obama “hipness” meme. Some of it is his relative youth, but neither Bill Clinton nor JFK was considered hip, and both were younger than Obama when they took office. Kennedy was elegant; Clinton charismatic.
On Obama’s recent trip to Latin America, the Washington Post published a story headlined: “Race a Dominant Theme at Summit.” The story tried to argue that Obama was using his race as entree into a conversation about inequity and unfairness that have been dominant in Latin America politics for a long time. “In talking about his race and the backgrounds of his counterparts, Obama is associating himself more closely than his predecessors did with Latin America's indigenous, black and mixed-race underclass,” the story asserted.
In fact, the very opposite is true. Leaders and people in Latin America, the Caribbean, around the globe and here in the United States ascribe to Obama an empathy about their problems related to race because he is black. But that presumption of empathy has less to do with the mere fact of his race and more to do with Obama’s personal style and his political skills, both of which are heavily reliant on an aura of empathy.
Mostly what the Latin American and Caribbean leaders got was an American president with a different style from his predecessors. In the end, neither his style nor the color of his skin was of consequence.
And Obama is all about consequences: “Many Americans are simply wondering how all of our different programs and policies fit together in a single, overarching strategy that will move this economy from recession to recovery and ultimately to prosperity,” he said in his recent economic speech.
We are indeed. Turns out it’s not such a black thing, after all.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.