On race issue, Obama stays firmly low-key

Some black leaders want the president to confront what they view as his critics' racism, but Obama continues to strike a modulated tone. It's not an easy line to walk, observers say.

September 20, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak and Richard Fausset

WASHINGTON AND ATLANTA — As a black man who has felt the sting of prejudice, President Obama is not only empathetic but uniquely positioned to advance the cause of equality in a country where skin color remains, for many, a barrier to opportunity and achievement.

Yet throughout his career, Obama has been careful to avoid being pigeonholed as serving mainly the interest of African Americans; otherwise, he never would have been elected in November.

The result is a duality to Obama's presidency. He brings aspects of the black experience into the White House -- using occasional street slang, installing a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oval Office. But he tries to keep enough distance from racial issues -- transcendence may be his way of seeing it -- to avoid undermining the notion of a colorblind administration.

It is not easy, even for one as deft as Obama, as the latest national debate over race and politics suggests.

Some black leaders are frustrated that the president has failed to confront what they view as his most ardent critics' racism, a charge that gained widespread acceptance, if not credence, when leveled last week by President Carter.

If the current president fails to speak out, said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist and former political advisor to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, "then who is supposed to exercise the moral leadership?"

Obama, however, shows little desire to wade into the mire of racial politics.

In an unprecedented series of interviews with the Sunday news shows, aimed at promoting healthcare reform, the nation's first black president could not avoid talking about race. He was repeatedly asked if he felt prejudice was fueling antipathy toward his presidency. Each time he delivered a variation of the same modulated message: Yes, there are people who don't like him because he is African American, but no, that's not the main reason his administration has drawn such fierce criticism.

"It's an argument that's gone on for the history of this republic, and that is, 'What's the right role of government?' " Obama told NBC's David Gregory. "This is not a new argument, and it always invokes passions."

The same, of course, could be said about race, which has vexed politicians since the Founding Fathers wrestled, inconclusively, with slavery. But, typically, Obama has confronted race head-on only when circumstance demanded -- such as when his candidacy was threatened by ties to his former pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

When Obama spoke up this summer in the racially fraught case of Henry Louis Gates Jr., saying police "acted stupidly" by arresting the black scholar in his Cambridge, Mass., home, many whites were put off. On reflection, Obama called his remarks ill-considered and sat down at the White House for beers with Vice President Joe Biden, Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.

By contrast, his comments on the Sunday shows were perhaps most noteworthy for how tepid they seemed -- especially compared with the visceral outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) during Obama's speech to Congress and the incandescent anger at rowdy town hall meetings and last weekend's protest march on the Capitol.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the president is attempting "a balancing act" that Morial first witnessed decades ago when his own father, Ernest, became New Orleans' mayor.

"What Barack Obama is experiencing is quite similar to what the first black mayors of major American cities went through 20 or more years ago," said Morial, who later became New Orleans mayor himself. "It's just when it happened to a Maynard Jackson or a Morial or a Coleman Young, it didn't play out in the national media in such a major way."

There will always be an enigmatic quality to the study of Obama's personal tastes and his political instincts. On one hand, as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, he comes from an eclectic cultural background, which is reflected in his wide-ranging palette of interests. "Because he's been a part of so many worlds, it's given him the ability to be comfortable in many different ones," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview.

Obama's historic position is not lost on him, Gibbs went on, and with it comes an unparalleled opportunity "to deliver messages others couldn't."

There is undeniably greater weight when a black president goes to, say, an inner city school and urges parents to turn off the TV and Xbox and make their children study. Or when he appears before the NAACP and says too many blacks have "internalized a sense of limitation" and "come to expect so little from the world and from themselves."

"No excuses!" Obama exhorted that audience. "No excuses!"

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