Race and Barack Obama's political opposition

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.

0 thoughts on “Race and Barack Obama's political opposition

  1. These are wise words. Many liberals are spending their time and energy not on winning the policy debate itself, but on a meta-discussion. This encompasses topics like whether the reaction against Obama indicates that we have a deeply racist society, or whether Hillary Clinton would have done a better job as president. The Republican party, on the other hand, is concentrated only on winning.


  2. Thanks, Buzz. Yes, the Republicans do an excellent job of focusing on winning!

    But liberals and Democrats wouldn’t be liberals or Democrats I suppose if it weren’t for their relentless navel-gazing and need for moral superiority. I cop to this myself, without hesitation, but then again it’s not my job to WIN ELECTIONS.


  3. Thank you so much for this post, Historiann. I was thinking of doing something along very similar lines, but my typist would rather wax rhapsodic about fall in the high desert of her undisclosed location right now. It is amazing to me, though, that the left is so constitutionally incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time — i.e., of seeing that, as important as racism may be, it is far from all there is driving the resistance to Obama’s policy proposals. You hit the nail on the head here, and I’m grateful to you for it.


  4. Hear hear, Historiann! Thanks so much for this. We’ve been having the same conversation over the past couple of days–that racism is not driving the opposition to Obama’s policy proposals. Many a good progressive is distracted onto that and so is not effectively arguing against or combating these nutbars. I’m with Roxie–thanks so much for these wise words and perspicacious analysis.


  5. Trust us–no one listens to us anyway, so spend your time on good policy and good politics and go for the win.

    Sounds nice, but you are forgetting that what you consider a “win” is quite different from what the majority of beltway Democrats consider a “win”.


  6. Just to throw a bit of a playful wrench into the analysis, what about a DEMOCRATIC President Colin Powell, shepherding substantially the same policies as Obama but with more hard-edged political analysis and tactics than Obama is getting from the mustachioed Chicago advisoriate that carried him (or who he carried) into the White House? I’m sure that rightist push-back with the same crazy bag of “ideas” would be in evidence, but would there not also be some undercurrent about how he had been born in Jamaica, complete with “pictures” of him and Fidel and Che riding an army truck into Havana in 1959? I drifted over to the edges of one of those local “tea parties” out here a couple of weeks ago. It was your basic cluster of alienated groups, from hunters to motorcycle helmet-law resisters to aging John Birchers. But the “take this country back” stuff I was hearing in the few minutes I could make myself stay pretty much persuaded me that the undercurrent of race fear is pretty real. One problem may be with terms like “primarily,” “overwhelmingly,” and the fuzzier than fuzzy “largely beside the point.” As I learned years ago in a first year quantitative political history seminar, we need finer-edged metrics to measure causality and effect. (Not that I ever did that kind of stuff! 🙂 ).

    The more I think of the Axelrod axis of Chicago ward politics White House staffers, and in light of the obits this week for Jody Powell, the more the Carter analogies begin to trouble.


  7. Part of my social circle is conservative Republicans, religious rightists, and so on. I know that sounds odd, but I live in a small town in the South and I’m in the arts scene. Anyway, *yes* it’s [also] about race. It’s about the other things too, and it’s true that other stereotypes were mobilized about the Clintons, and so on. If you heard what people have to say and saw what their fear levels were, you’d see what I mean.


  8. I agree with Z above; it’s all the things Historiann mentions and it’s also race. I also have conservatives and evangelicals in my social circle and while I’m not seeing much out and out racism per se, there is a general tone-deafness and complete lack of understanding about what it means to be black in America and how the experience of being black in America might lead one to see things differently. And so they worry about what they perceive to be a lack of love of the US from the Obamas because, for them, there’s nothing not to love while for many minorities there’s a lot to question. Sad to say, though, I think our national commitment to a certain historical narrative that valorizes the founding fathers as born-again Christians (including Thomas Jefferson) at the same time as it relegates the history of minorities to certain months means we can never reach any common ground because we’re not reading from the same hymn sheet.


  9. Indyanna, Z, and thefrogprincess–I’m sure you’re right about your observations within your social groups. (Would the people you write about not oppose any Dem president, though?) And I certainly am not arguing here that race is irrelevant or (in Brooks’s words) “beside the point.” I’m just saying that getting drawn into this briar patch set by the Republicans is a political mistake. Fortunately Obama recognizes this–I just wish more of his Dem pals would, too.

    For all of the noise and viciousness of the attacks on him, Obama is not the world’s biggest victim of racism. He’s the President of the United States–and there are a lot more people here in the U.S. and around the world who, although few people single them out for attacks, still suffer from racist ideas and policies much more than Obama ever will.


  10. “And confidential to Moose: stop by since you’re in the high desert, Moose–we’ve got feed, water, and tack for the whole crew.”

    Moose says thank ye kindly, Historiann, and it’s an offer worth considering — she’s got to get back East somehow, sometime, we think, and her horse is one hungry critter, even if it is of the hybrid variety.


  11. While Democrats are busy trying to prove the Republicans are racists, the Republicans are busy submarining any chance of genuine health care reform.

    Obama gave a major speech to Congress on the issue, and we spent the following week discussing Joe Wilson.


  12. I think Carter’s phrase “intensely demonstrated animosity” speaks to some of the very strange stuff going on out there, including all the commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. There was hatred against the Clintons during their years, but this is different, in part because the lunatic fringe now passes for accepted discourse. With racism it’s always difficult to separate cause from effect (or rhetorical strategy, as you say, historiann), but I don’t think you can compare the bubba stuff to some of the anger toward Obama. (Also, I thought bubba was a Democratic strategy.) And if Hillary were president, it would be much worse. Even though there are racists in our midst, the level of hatred toward women throughout this society is more intense.

    In terms of winning strategies, the Republicans have mobilized the haters and continue to do so. It doesn’t guarantee a win, but it does build support for the elite and enriches the bank balances of certain personalities. And, of course, it moves the center to the right.


  13. I hear Carter’s confirmation of the racism as another slap at the Clintons. I heard it as Jimmy finding one more way to say that Bill had it coming to him. Obama’s being attacked because of race means that the attacks on Clinton were rooted in something Bill did.

    And yes, I agree that for Carter, race is a pivotal issue. But Clinton is a personal issue that he has never gotten over.

    Ego. Ego. Ego.


  14. lorelynn–interesting! I hadn’t considered the personal grudge between Carter and Clinton in this, but you may have a point. (To be fair: Clinton gave Carter zero role in the 1992 Dem convention–something like a pan of the crowd and a wave, not a speech or podium appearance. Understandably Carter was honked off, but equally understandably Clinton didn’t want to be yoked to Carter when it looked like he had a shot of winning!) And since Carter was the only living Dem President–well, it was just unfortunate all the way around. Clinton preferred people to think he was the son of Kennedy, and to skip the other two Dem presidents between 1963 and 1992.

    Rad Readr: Great points. I think the main difference between the disgust levels is that Obama has it coming from the right wing underbelly that you mention–the real fever swamps, but the Clintons got it from that corner PLUS the mainstream media and even from a lot in their own party. (Remember David Broder’s shirty comment that Clinton “came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place?”) I think this may have to do with the fact that people feel a lot easier about expressing class-based loathing than they do about expressing race-based loathing. (At least Democrats do–there’s a lot of unself-reflective class bias in Dem leadership and strategy.) So the opposition to Obama looks more united and more racist–because it is!

    What I wonder is why Glenn Beck exists at all. How does a guy like that get a TV show and keep it?


  15. What’s the point?

    Accusations of racism won’t faze the real racists and will anger non-racist opponents. Polls show most people don’t buy the racism argument anyway.

    The only reasons to keep “playing the race card” that make any sense are to rally supporters or to provide an excuse for failure.


  16. the Republicans are busy submarining any chance of genuine health care reform.

    This is incorrect. It is the right-wing of the Democratic senatorial caucus that is submarining any chance of genuine health care reform. All this talk about “bipartisanship” and “compromising” with Republicans is an attempt by the right-wing Dems who have been bought by the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and other corporate health care lobbies to provide a fig-leaf to cover up their own tanking of health care reform in favor of the corporate oligarchy.

    The idea is that when they pass a shit bill that fucks over middle-class Americans and shovels cash into the pockets of greedfuck corporate oligarchs, and voters get pissed off, they can try to blame the Republicans by saying that they had no choice but to “compromise” with them. The problem with this is that not a single motherfucking Republican is going to vote for the bill no matter what, and so rational voters should blame the right-wing Dems. However, American voters are fucking stupid, so they might just fall for this anyway.

    (BTW, I did not figure this out myself. My opinion about this is based on Digby’s analysis.)


  17. Good points, CPP. I think you (via Digby) are correct. But, Obama showed the right wing of the Dem senatorial caucus the way, when he made a great show of the “bipartisanship” of the stimulus bill, which he permitted Arlen Spector and Olympia Snowe to write. (Back when Arlen was a Republican, that is–I’m sure he’s deeply chagrined now to realize that he’s got WAY less mojo with Obama now that he’s a fellow Dem!)

    Obama insists on pretending like everyone’s playing baseball, despite the fact that while his team is at bat, the other team is driving clown cars around the infield trying to run down the base runners. And the damnable thing is that the clown-car drivers are really great at what they do!


  18. “There was hatred against the Clintons during their years, but this is different, in part because the lunatic fringe now passes for accepted discourse.”

    When do you think the lunatic fringe became accepted discourse? During the Clinton years. Like the the repeated accuations — aired in mainstream media — that the Clintons murdered Vince Foster? There were no less than FOUR investigations into Foster’s suicide, including the Whitewater investigation by Ken Starr, all of them by government agencies/agents, and all of them paid for by us, the taxpayers. Oh, and to set your mind at ease, every single investigation concluded that he committed suicide. Or how about the one hour prime-time special just for Gennifer Flowers? Which also included accusations of murder, IIRC.

    If you’re at all interested, you could read “The Hunting of the President” for the run down. It’s fascinating but not for the weak of heart (or stomach). It’s also interesting because it looks a lot like what was done to Hillary in the primaries.

    What’s happening to Obama is exactly what happens to every Dem President. Race plays a part in it because he’s black, just like class played a part in the Clinton presidency because he was poor and white southern. But race and class aren’t what’s motivating the professional political opposition, IMO. Race and class are just tools to mobilize the masses. Tools that Obama and his supporters used very effectively during the primaries against Hillary Clinton. That makes me suspect that Carter isn’t wholly freelancing it.


  19. Profane–thanks for the numbers. I have heard that many of his sponsors are deserting him, but with 5 or 6 times the audience of his competition, I suppose he can afford to slough off a few. (I just find him so totally stupid and phony!)

    Emma, this history of sliming Dem presidents is very important. I remember days after the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993 seeing all kinds of bumper stickers on cars in East (white) Baltimore that said, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him, or HER,” and “He’s not MY president,” and even more to the point, “Impeach Clinton.” These were for the most part white working-class people who had a lot more in common with Bill Clinton in all kinds of ways, and people who probably prospered more under Clinton’s leadership than under the 12 years preceding him under Reagan and Bush I. It was shocking to see how fast and how virulent the opposition to Clinton took shape.


  20. >This is incorrect. It is the right-wing of the Democratic senatorial caucus that is submarining any chance of genuine health care reform.

    This is also incorrect. It is the Obama administration that has destroyed any chance of genuine reform, perhaps because of political incompetence but more probably because Obama never wanted real reform in the first place, but just something symbolic he could run on in 2012 without upsetting the health insurance industry.


  21. I’m with Ted here. Right wing Democrats in the senate (and house) were deliberately empowered by Obama.

    One thing stands out in the hearings — Jay Rockefeller is passionate about health care reform. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Rockefeller chairs the Health Care subcommittee on the Finance Committee. Yet that Health Care subcommittee, and Rockefeller himself, were completely cut out of the “gang of six” negotiations.

    Now, how does a Senate sub-committee chairman manage to ignore the subcommittee that is supposed to deal with a particular issue, and hijack the issue for consideration by a small, hand-picked, unrepresentative group of Senators? The ONLY way that happens is if a lot of pressure is applied, and the only place that much pressure can originate from is the White House.

    Indeed, when I asked Karen Tumulty months ago why she was doing so much reporting on Baucus’s “gang of six” and ignoring the entire House and the Senate HELP committee, her answer was that the White House was dealing only with the baucus group, and not with the other committees.

    Finally, ask yourself why, given the complete failure of the “gang of six” to come up with a bill, that Max Baucus gets to submit his own personal bill to the entire committee for markup? The answer is that the Baucus bill is really the White House bill, and the White House is now finally insisting on “action”….

    “go for the win” is a nice slogan, but its also a sign of corruption. “The win” has to be something that advances the appropriate agenda, and not just the political prospect of a politician or party. We “went for the win” and elected Obama and supermajorities in Congress, but that is turning out to be a meaningless victory.


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