Everyone wants skin in a State of the Union; every interest group kneels down and prays it’ll get a slice or a nod in what is arguably the most important political speech of any year.
So it came as no surprise this week to find aggrieved schools of thought convinced that President Barack Obama wasn’t pushy enough on the subject of race. Some are vexed, and occasionally surprised, that he isn’t normally all pumped-fists-in-the-air, throwing hot, accusatory racial diatribes at Republicans. In the case of the State of the Union, others wanted him to just plaster it “black” beyond the two times he said it (which is groundbreaking enough for any president), or to give an official “racism is alive” line. DailyKos blogger Virally Suppressed suggests that Obama “gloss[ed] over racial and economic inequalities and peddl[ed] nonexistent bipartisanship.” The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington charges that “after an extraordinary few months of protests across the country, Obama’s reference to the events was strikingly muted.”
Race is a complex and tragically dangerous topic to publicly mull as leader of the free world, and the president’s justifiable calibration when swimming through it is thoughtful acknowledgment of its power. He is still president of the United States, not only responsible for 330 million lives but also obligated to maintain the integrity of the office as long as he sits in it. We should expect no less. Still, let’s get into the five calculated reasons that Obama seems a bit standoffish on race when, in fact, he really isn’t:
It’s all about legacy. Sorry: President Obama doesn’t want history books showing endless pics of him walking through inner-city streets. After all, he sowed his community-activist oats long ago. This is a presidency obsessed—and sometimes frustratingly so—with going glacier big.
So the president wants historians viewing him as the turning-point guy, the moment when the world changed for the better. Too much on race could relegate him to nothing more than a permanent Black History Month wall mural. He left that to outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. Instead, he seeks legendary-statesman status alongside Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and, OK, Reagan, too.
He’s still got a job to do, folks. Two years is still a long way to go, and the age of Obama is still in full effect. He’s been hired twice to represent the most powerful nation on the globe, and with Earth still spinning on its axis, a presidency muddled in a nonstop race script seems so … well … small. There’s an expectation that he should be above that, and his slow gains in approval ratings show some sorely missed political wind reappearing in his sails.
#BlackLivesMatter isn’t polling all that great. If you’re pushing an ambitious wish list of free community college, child care help, immigration reform and higher wages, you can’t be wedded to an uncertain movement that hasn’t flexed any political muscle or savvy. Nearly half of all Americans in a YouGov poll believed that protesters were responsible for the killings of New York City cops, and pretty much half—including nearly 60 percent of whites—think that race relations have gotten worse under Obama. Thus, the president has to tread softly on race if he envisions getting anywhere on his agenda before time is up.
A bigger-fish-to-fry calculus. When responding to outrage over Selma getting snubbed by Oscar elites, actor Anthony Mackie clumsily two-cented: “People are just tired of being bombarded with race right now.” While that helped cement his next Captain America sidekick gig, Mackie was rather politically astute. President Obama might agree. There’s too much long game at stake. The latest post-State of the Union CNN poll shows that 72 percent of Americans believe the president’s policies will move them in the right direction—a full 15-percentage-point rise from a poll taken several days before the speech. And 75 percent want him playing nice with Republicans while he’s at it. Why would he ruin all that by getting engaged in bad-optic battles over who’s blackest? Nothing personal, it’s just bigger than you or me.
POTUS: I’m not already black enough? Perhaps, in his mind, the biologically biracial president has already sacrificed quite a bit of his whiteness in an effort to boost the dreams and aspirations of his blackness. He gave up Hawaiian paradise to call cold, trash-littered Chicago home. He cut his advocacy teeth on the hard streets of Chicago’s South Side. He’s raising the ideal black family. Does that mean we should cut him some slack on race? Probably not. But we shouldn’t be so fooled into hoping that President Obama will invite the parents of slain unarmed black men to the next White House state dinner, much less the last State of the Union, anytime soon. You’ll just have to walk that off, black fam.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.