There has always been a measured slickness in how Barack Obama’s political operation has handled race, the third rail in politics. They have taken the guards off the rail and made an old obstacle an instrument of fashion. And they have done so with an instinct for the genuine and legitimate guilt surrounding race in American life. As political maneuver, it is a thing of grace in some ways.
At least until the thing turns shameless and expedient. Bill Clinton got the first dose of the treatment, when he protested that Obama’s credentials as an anti-war stalwart were “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” That comment was then shape-shifted from a hard political jab at Obama’s rhetorical dodges on the Iraq War to an insinuation that the notion that Obama could win the presidency was wishful fantasy. No dispassionate observer who saw the video and heard Clinton in full cry would have arrived at the seamier interpretation, but with the nudging of Axelrod and Co., and with a little help from South Carolina’s congressman Jim Clyburn, the idea that Clinton meant much worse took hold.
The punch that Clinton absorbed was uncocked repeatedly. Sometimes on defense — when the Jeremiah Wright tapes surfaced, for example, the reasonable question of what drew Obama to a church with a history of incendiary rhetoric was cleverly converted to a teaching moment about an older generation’s fixation with race. When questions about the link between Obama and his old neighbor and fundraiser William Ayers started to burn, the line of inquiry was brushed off as an indirect method of raising fears about black radicalism, and it soon faded.
More often, the blow was an offensive one. The “Yes We Can” mantra always carried the insinuation that Obama’s primary wins were a triumph over the color line. Hillary Clinton’s campaign never found a way to channel that kind of power, even with another glass ceiling at stake. To the contrary, the Clintonites only added fuel to the fire through their observations about Obama’s struggle to connect with working-class whites — and through their lament that he was lucky to “be who he is,” in the words of the late Geraldine Ferraro. To desert Obama in the final throes of the 2008 primaries, Democrats would have had to break faith with their most loyal base and with their party’s identification with the civil-rights era. That was the cloud hovering over Hillary’s furious rally in the final quarter.
The transcendent moment of Obama’s triumph can’t be diminished. But one would have to be blinkered to deny that Obama’s race in 2008 likely empowered him much more than it weakened him — or to assume that Obama’s strategists and their acolytes in the press don’t recognize the power of recapturing race as both an offensive and a defensive weapon.
Enter Joe Biden in Danville, Va., on Tuesday, before a crowd with a large African-American presence. In forced colloquialisms, the vice president warned the audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.” In the hours since, Team Obama has scratched hard to find a different subtext to his statement, but their mincing of words has only added insult to injury: Every African American in the room knew full well whom “y’all” referred to, and what chains meant — it’s one of the clearest codes in racial politics in the black community and has been for a while. At worst, the word “chains” signifies a retreat to a society where a person’s skin color amounted to a prison. At the least, the word bluntly and outrageously equates ordinary conservatism with racial viciousness.
Biden brought this rawness to a place the Obama campaign and its allies have spent much time cultivating this year. It is visible in David Axelrod’s breathless assertions about a decidedly innocent, non-political moment: a small black child touching Obama’s head in an Oval Office photo-op. It is visible in Eric Holder’s deployment of the Justice Department to a series of battles over state voter-ID laws, and in the New York Times’ editorial-page crusade against all manner of alleged race-baiting by Republicans. (Including one writer’s remarkable, if side-splitting, assertion that Mitt Romney’s blandness is a calculated ploy to invoke memories of a Fifties-era, pre-multicultural America. Who knew?) It is an unmistakable, unapologetic argument that to defeat Obama is to suspend progress on race.
Of course, there are different kinds of progress. There is the inconvenient fact that Obama has governed while black unemployment and the level of child hunger in the black community have risen to the highest rates in the modern era, and while educational achievement among African Americans continues to bottom out at appalling levels. This record is one that the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said last summer would lead blacks to march outside the White House if it had a different occupant.
The Obama message, implicitly, is that the conditions on the ground, including in the black community, are small, grudging details when weighed against the epic fact that a black man occupies the Oval Office. It’s a point of view. But that argument is too charged, too at odds with Obama’s official de-emphasis on race, to be made out loud and in the light of day. Better to work through the hidden-hand approach, through surrogates who create plausible deniability and through commentators who can be disavowed. Interesting that the Sixties-era figure whom the Obama reelect campaign conjures up is neither a Kennedy nor a King but that great hidden-hand stone thrower, Richard Nixon.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.