Deval Patrick and the Curse of the 2nd Black President

Charles D. Ellison
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick greets President Barack Obama at the airport in Boston, Oct. 23, 2009.

If two-term Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick wants to be a candidate for president in 2016, he’s faced with one problematic detail: We’ve already had a black president.

Patrick, who’s the Bay State’s first African-American chief executive, is openly chewing on a bid for the White House, answering “maybe” in a recent Politico interview when asked about a possible run. “That’s a decision I have to make along with my wife of 30 years, and she’s a tough one to convince,” he said. “Let’s just see what time tells.”


The problem, though, isn’t so much convincing his wife—who’s probably attracted now, more than ever, to the notion of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., since current first lady Michelle Obama is wearing it so well. The problem is the brewing Curse of the Second Black President. A wary and prickly American electorate that is never fully honest with itself about race will more than likely feel like it’s “been there, done that” with the black-president thing—at least for the moment. And the resounding push-back to Patrick could be something like, “We’ve been through eight years of this, fam. Can’t do that again.”

Clearly this is from the three-quarters of the electorate that’s still white and will continue to dominate the polls well into the next 20 years. (Talk all you want about people of color rising, but white folks are still running the show.) It all depends on where President Obama’s approval rating—right now at 44 percent—is by the time the 2016 Democratic primaries kick in.


Obama seemed to carefully calibrate this issue back in 2008, when he decided to pick then-senator and notorious word fumbler Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate. Back then, progressive purists were pushing him to pick archrival Hillary Clinton as his running mate, but the crafty biracial Chicago politician knew very well the limits of the American cultural and political appetite—and that a black candidate with a movement and a white woman behind him would probably have been too much.

Patrick is also a smart politician, though. To be black, run statewide and win twice in a state that’s barely 8 percent black is an accomplishment that folks might want to take a second look at. There’s a model, or calculus, in those gubernatorial wins that may prove useful in a national bid.


And, real talk: Patrick—along with in-state sidekick Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren—gave the best, most memorable speech of the Democratic National Convention in 2012. While the pundits were babbling over comparisons between snooze-festy Bill Clinton and Barack Obama speeches, the rest of us were getting stirred into giddiness by Patrick’s performance. Which got some people saying that Patrick was pretty damn good at looking presidential. And he’s managed to do pretty well in his state, carrying a 50 percent approval rating in the latest PPP poll.

So let’s say Patrick really does decide to run. He’s apparently seeing something the rest of us don’t see. Something about how Hillary Clinton, supposedly the unstoppable favorite, might not be connecting. For Patrick to think “maybe,” it means that she’s vulnerable. Or maybe he’s finding the rest of the emerging Democratic-primary field to be somewhat incompetent and downright unready. Or maybe—quoting him still—he’s just throwing his name in the ring as a potential Cabinet pick, threatening the possibility of a run and splitting the vote in the primary as a way to negotiate his way back to Washington. 


“I’d like to have another opportunity to serve,” Patrick said coyly. “I believe in service. I enjoy it.”

What if Patrick, though, is really itching for a serious bid? At the moment, he’s just not registering on the national radar, but neither is Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and he’s actually pulling together a machine for 2016. Patrick could easily win his home state in a primary and also in a general (unlike another former Massachusetts governor we know). And it’s highly likely that he’d get quite a few Northeastern states along the Boston-to-D.C. Amtrak “Acela corridor.” Let’s also assume that he’d have an easier time getting black-voter support, which could be much more enthusiastic about participating in both the primary and the general election, since there would be another black man to vote for. 


But Patrick’s road to the nomination, even with Hillary Clinton in the mix, would be much easier than a general-election matchup. For one thing, Clinton is not really all that invincible—we’re still two years out from the action, and the hard left of the Democratic Party still isn’t convinced that she’s “the one.”

Why not? A black man did it back in 2008, so, in theory, another black man could do it again in 2016. But what gets harder for Patrick—and he knows this—is the general election. That’s a hard nut to crack.


And though you wouldn’t see a 2016 Patrick campaign bringing former President Obama along on the stump (because that might be too much black to stomach), he’d certainly have him on speed dial.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.


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.

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