There is a passionate and (in my opinion) extremely stupid debate as to whether or not President Barack Obama’s political opponents are motivated primarily by racism. President Jimmy Carter, for example, says yes: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American,” said the former president. (I have heard this all summer long on various “progressive” radio stations and blogs.) Many, especially Republicans, disagree–like David Brooks, who wrote yesterday that “race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts.” There are probably a good number of people who refused to vote for Obama because he is African American–a good number of them Democrats as well as Republicans–but they are only a tiny minority of the opposition he’s facing now. (Ask yourself: who would be mobilizing race in their rhetoric if we were talking about Republican President Colin Powell getting close to enacting a major policy goal?)
In my view, the opposition Obama faces is pretty much the same that every Democratic president in recent history has faced: conservatives who are skeptical about the expansion of government and who think “tax” is a dirty word, and the Republican party who’s angry that they’re no longer in control of the levers of power. The political right didn’t use as much overtly racist images and language in articulating their oppostition to President Carter and to President Bill Clinton–but they didn’t have to. They portrayed Carter (a nuclear engineer and Navy veteran) as a naive and ineffective peacenik, and they portrayed Clinton (a Georgetown and Yale grad and a Rhodes Scholar) as “bubba,” a white-trash Southerner of dubious lineage. (There was of course a truckload of racist ideas and images deployed against Democrats who defended the welfare state or even tried to expand it from the 1960s onward–but I’m not talking about opposition to policy so much as the demonization of a party leader here in this post.) So we should not be surprised to see parallel caricatures of Barack Obama trotted out and refreshed for modern usage–and of course some of those caricatures mobilize race, because they can. (This is still America, after all, and America wouldn’t be America if it weren’t obsessed to the point of derangement with race!)
In the right-wing’s funhouse-mirror version of Obama, the bootstrapping, triangulating Ivy-leaguer (strikingly like Clinton, in these respects) becomes the man who’s frightening because of his indeterminacy: a biracial moderate of obscure family origins could claim to be anyone or anything (according to his political opponents), so his political opponents play on these ambiguities and stake out absurd extremes. One of the most disturbing images of Obama, in my view, is the photograph of him that was doctored to put him in “whiteface”–a reference to the smeared makeup of Heath Ledger’s “The Joker” from the recent Batman films, but still an eerie inversion of minstrelsy. The political resentment of Obama is rooted in some clear policy differences and different philosophies of government–but it’s frequently expressed against Obama in images and language that mobilize race and reference the United States’ long and deep history of racial exploitation.
Something similar would have happened if Hillary Clinton had bested Obama in the 2008 primaries and won election last November–the opposition to her wouldn’t be wholly rooted in misogyny but a variety of sexist stereotypes, smears, and language would be (and will be) our daily bread during a woman’s presidency, as they were in so much of the noise around her primary campaign. Race is hardly “beside the point,” as Brooks said, but the opposition to Obama is based on a lot more. (Isn’t it interesting that the language and images of race are so easily evoked and played with by Obama’s opponents?) The only difference I think there would be in a Clinton versus an Obama presidency is that even a President Hillary Clinton’s allies would be much less likely to complain about the misogyny–they would be likelier to say, “well, the opposition has a point–she is kind of shrill, isn’t she?”
Any Dem president would be (and will continue to be) served in pretty much the same fashion, depending on her or his identities and biography. The question isn’t how to overcome or transcend this kind of political fight, but rather, how to win. Please note that I said “how to win,” not “how to win a fight about whether or not your opponents are racists.” Historians and cultural critics like me and my readers can complain about this and analyze it to death–and the politicians and progressive activists really should leave this stuff to us, the experts. (Sorry, President Carter.) Democrats keep getting their hats handed to them precisely because they keep bringing soft cushions and comfy chairs to knife fights, and they keep thinking that the public will reward them for trying to rise above the fray. Ask yourself: how did that work out for President Stevenson, President McCarthy, President McGovern, President Mondale, President Dukakis, President Gore, and President Kerry? (President Jed Bartlett probably could have gotten away with being both right and winning, but sadly, he was only president on TV. Real life presidents should settle for winning.)
Please, Democratic leaders: leave the tedious study of rhetoric and history and the pretentious theorizing to the real eggheads. Leave it to those of us who toil in obscurity in the groves of academe. We do it better than you, but perhaps more importantly–talking about race in American history is not really your path to fame, fortune, and success. Trust us–no one listens to us anyway, so spend your time on good policy and good politics and go for the win.