Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
Editor's Note: President-elect Barack Obama never made race an issue in his presidential bid. Perhaps that's why he earned the endorsements of the likes of Colin Powell and Hollywood celebrities, and won over the media, writes NAM contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
The instant Barack Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring nearly two years ago, the twin mantra was that he could be the first black president, and if that happened, America would finally have kicked its race syndrome.
The twin mantra has been repeated ad infinitum, and it’s dead wrong. The early hint that race was overblown and over-obsessed came from Obama himself: He didn’t talk about it, and for good reason -- he was not running as a black presidential candidate. He was running as a presidential candidate.
He had to make that crucial distinction for personal and political purposes.
The ritual preface of the word “black” in front of any achievement or breakthrough that an African American makes is insulting, condescending and minimizes their 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 and his relative youth –- defies racial pigeonholing. He was influenced by, but not shaped by, the rigid race-grounded civil rights struggles of the 1960s as older whites and blacks were.
The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped anyway. Obama would have had no hope of bagging the presidency if there had been the slightest hint that he embraced the race-tinged politics of Al Sharpton or 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, corporate and union leaders. He would not have netted the endorsements of Colin Powell and packs of former Reagan and Bush Sr. administration stalwarts, and prepped by W. Bush political guru Karl Rove on how to beat Hillary Clinton. The media would never have given him the top-heavy favorable coverage, endorsements, nor relentlessly hammered Republican rival John McCain.
If the media had so chosen, it could have torpedoed Obama’s campaign by playing up the connection to his race-focused former pastor Jeremiah Wright. But the media bought his protest of racial bewilderment at the Wright race revelations, and dropped the matter.
Obama had to cling closely to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton had laid out for Democrats to win elections, and to govern after he won.
It meant that during the campaign, and at least in the early days of his presidency, he would focus on strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, mild tax reform for the middle class, a cautious plan for affordable health care and for dealing with the sub-prime lending crisis, and a genteel 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 Republicans have been floated for Obama’s staff and cabinet picks such as Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Tim Kaine, John Kerry, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, Chuck Hagel, Tom Vilsack, and, as improbable as it seems, even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Secretary of Energy. The list reads like a who’s who of the Beltway and Heartland America establishment.
Obama’s cautious, center-governing, non-racial, likely staff and cabinet are plainly designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats, especially those branded liberal Democrats, inherently pander to special interests, i.e. minorities, are pro-expansive government, and anti-business. They will be watching for any sign of that from Obama.
As president, Obama will be pulled and 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 all will vie to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests.
An Obama White House will, of course, be a historic and symbolic first. However, it will be a White House that keeps a firm, cautious and conciliatory eye on Middle America public opinion, and corporate and defense industry interests in making policy decisions and determining priorities. All other occupants of the White House have done that.
Obama would not 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. It has everything to do with the requirement of White House governance.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).