Horseback-riding Teddy Roosevelt might have done a double take were he allowed to gaze from his "Rough Rider" portrait in the White House at the 44th president of the United States, fielding a range of questions about his executive policies from 10 black newspaper columnists sitting around an oblong table.
This uniquely nonwhite all-American scene in the Roosevelt Room last week might even have drawn a grimace from his cousin FDR, whose portrait graces the south wall of the West Wing office where President Barack Obama had invited in members of the Trotter Group. This national organization drew its founding spirit from William Monroe Trotter, the campaigning Boston newspaperman whom President Wilson famously abruptly dismissed from a White House visit for daring to challenge the chief executive's support for racial segregation within the federal government.
Unlike the early-20th-century president who degraded the skin tone of Trotter, Obama embraces it rather proudly, opting, for example, to sign "African American" in the U.S. Census rather than bargaining out as "mixed race," as many had suggested.
Queried at the session about being the nation's first black commander-in-chief and serving as the only such modern leader of the free world, Obama demurred as only he can. Neither accepting nor rejecting it as an accolade, Obama meshed the sociobiological with the historical fact of his race, then subordinated both to the Day 1 challenge he faced as a president: inheriting two wars and a nation facing straight up "the worst … overall economic crisis since the Great Depression."
"When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball," Obama said, "my suspicion is [that] on a day-to-day basis, what he was worrying about was hits and how [were the] Brooklyn [Dodgers] doing. He was thinking about winning games. And then after he retired, he could look back and say, 'Well, that was something … I tend to just be focusing on getting hits and making plays.' "
Pressed on his pursuit of the war in Afghanistan, a soft policy spot where even progressives have hammered him, the president was asked if he was satisfied that his top military brass — who, according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, never answered his request for an "exit strategy" — agreed with his "withdrawal plan" calling for troops to start pulling out next July. Not one to ramble, Obama spent his longest answer sounding very much like the commander-in-chief with the steel spine that some deny him. As he put down the footprints of his Afghan policy, he came across as a civilian leader dictating war policy to a suspect military.
"I made a series of decisions about how we were going to bolster the efforts inside Afghanistan," he said, insisting that "we were [not] going to stay there in some open-ended enterprise." However, he did not confirm that his top brass "agreed" with this Afghan exit strategy. Instead he stated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all "understand very clearly" that "starting in July of next year, we are going to begin a process of transitioning out of Afghanistan."
The difference between "agree" and "understand" perhaps would not be worth considering, except that this time it concerns top military officials who are being discussed by a commander-in-chief who, unlike his predecessor, uses words very precisely.
While the Trotter Group asked the president some two dozen questions — ranging from the recent D.C. elections to soup kitchens in Philadelphia to the possible overpayment of federal workers — the columnists worked mightily and, ultimately, unsuccessfully at getting Obama to factor in racism as a key ingredient that accounts for the rise of the Tea Party. DeWayne Wickham of USA Today asked whether demonstrations such as "people chant[ing] that we want our country back" signaled a return to states' rights where the "Civil War is unfinished business."
"I think it's important not to see race behind every disagreement with me," said Obama, who proceeded not to see it behind any such dispute. It is just this type of granting of innocence to his enemies that confounds some of Obama's supporters, just as it must mystify those who are fully conscious of their bad intentions against him.
Therein may lie the key to the Obama success story: He seldom shows his sabre, and yet opponents fall writhing on the ground.
Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former assistant managing editor of Newsday, is a founder of the Trotter Group. He is a frequent contributor to The Root.