The instant that Barack Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring nearly two years ago, observers began chanting a twin mantra — that the Illinois senator could be the first black president, and that if that happened, America would have finally kicked its problem with race.
The twin mantra has been repeated ad infinitum, and it’s dead wrong. The early hint that race as an issue was overblown and overemphasized came from Obama himself. He didn’t talk about it, and for good reason: He was running as a presidential aspirant, not as a black presidential aspirant. He had to make that crucial distinction for personal and political purposes.
The ritual preface of the word “black” in front of any and every breakthrough an African American makes is insulting, condescending and minimizes the achievement. It maintains and reinforces the very racial separation that much of America claims it is trying to get past. Dumping the historic burden of race on blacks measures an individual’s success or failure by a group standard. That’s a burden whites don’t have. They succeed or fail solely as individuals.
Obama’s personal history — his biracial parents, his upbringing, his education, his relative youth — defies racial pigeonholing. He was influenced, but not shaped, by the race-grounded civil rights struggles of the 1960s, just as older whites and blacks were.
The process of ascending to the presidency demands that such racial typecasting be scrapped, anyway. Obama would have had no hope of bagging the election if there had been the slightest hint that he embraced the race-tinged politics of the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism.
He could not have raised record amounts of campaign cash. He would not have been fawned over by legions of Hollywood celebrities, or corporate and union leaders. He would not have netted the endorsements of Colin Powell and packs of former stalwarts of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, or prepped by Republican political guru Karl Rove on how to beat Hillary Clinton.
The media would never have given him such top-heavy favorable coverage and endorsements, nor relentlessly hammered Republican rival John McCain. If the media had so chosen, it could have torpedoed Obama’s campaign by playing up his connection with his race-focused former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Instead it bought his protest of the Wright race revelations and dropped the matter.
Obama had to cling closely to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for Democrats to win elections, and to govern after winning.
It meant during the campaign — and will mean, at least in the early days of his presidency — an emphasis on strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq war, mild tax reform for the middle class, cautious strategies for affordable health care and dealing with the subprime lending crisis, and a gentle reproach of Wall Street.
The old axiom that you can tell a president-elect by his staff and Cabinet picks will very much apply to Obama. A cast of governors, senators and ex-senators, former Clinton and Democratic Party operatives, and even a few token Republican mavericks have been floated for Obama’s staff and Cabinet.
The names include former Vice President Al Gore, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Clinton-era Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and yes, even Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the exception of the Governator, the list reads like a who’s who of the Beltway and Heartland establishment.
Obama’s cautious, center-governing, non-racial cast of likely staffers and Cabinet members is plainly designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats, especially those branded as liberal Democrats, inherently pander to special interests (meaning minorities), support expansive government and are anti-business. They will be watching like hawks for any sign of that in an Obama administration.
As president, Obama will be tugged at by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, moderate and conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas, and will all vie for White House support of their pet legislation — or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests.
The Obama White House will, of course, be a historic and symbolic first. However, it will also be a White House that keeps a firm, cautious and conciliatory eye on middle America’s public opinion, as well as corporate and defense industry interests, in making policy decisions and determining priorities. All other occupants of the White House have done that. Obama would and could not have attained the White House if he didn’t do the same.
This has nothing to do with race, or the nonsense of being tagged a “black” president, first or not. It has everything to do with the requirement of White House governance.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist, author and political analyst.