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The Color of His Presidency

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On September 9, 2009, the president delivered a State of the Union–style speech on health care before Congress. After a summer of angry tea-party town-hall meetings, Republicans had whipped themselves into a feisty mood. At one point, Obama assured the audience that his health-care law would not cover illegal immigrants. (This was true.) Joe Wilson, the Republican representing South Carolina’s Second District, screamed, “You lie!”

Over the next few days, several liberals stated what many more believed. “I think it’s based on racism,” offered Jimmy Carter at a public forum. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.” Maureen Dowd likewise concluded, “What I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy! … Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

Assailing Wilson’s motives on the basis of a word he did not say is, to say the least, a loose basis by which to indict his motives. It is certainly true that screaming a rebuke to a black president is the sort of thing a racist Republican would do. On the other hand, it’s also the sort of thing a rude or drunk or angry or unusually partisan Republican would do.

One way to isolate the independent variable, and thus to separate out the racism in the outburst, is to compare the treatment of Obama with that of the last Democratic president. Obama has never been called “boy” by a major Republican figure, but Bill Clinton was, by Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator and author of a presidential biography titled Boy Clinton. Here are some other things that happened during the Clinton years: North Carolina senator Jesse Helms said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page and other conservative organs speculated that Clinton may have had his aide Vince Foster murdered and had sanctioned a cocaine-smuggling operation out of an airport in Arkansas. Now, imagine if Obama had been called “boy” in the title of a biography, been subjected to threats of mob violence from a notorious former segregationist turned senator, or accused in a major newspaper of running coke. (And also impeached.) How easy would it be to argue that Republicans would never do such things to a white president?

Yet many, many liberals believe that only race can explain the ferocity of Republican opposition to Obama. It thus follows that anything Republicans say about Obama that could be explained by racism is probably racism. And since racists wouldn’t like anything Obama does, that renders just about any criticism of Obama—which is to say, nearly everything Republicans say about Obama—presumptively racist.

Does this sound like an exaggeration? Bill O’Reilly’s aggressive (and aggressively dumb) Super Bowl interview with the president included the question “Why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity?” Salon’s Joan Walsh asserted, “O’Reilly and Ailes and their viewers see this president as unqualified and ungrateful, an affirmative-action baby who won’t thank us for all we’ve done for him and his cohort. The question was, of course, deeply condescending and borderline racist.” Yes, it’s possible that O’Reilly implied that the United States afforded Obama special opportunity owing to the color of his skin. But it’s at least as possible, and consistent with O’Reilly’s beliefs, that he merely believes the United States offers everybody opportunity.

Esquire columnist Charles Pierce has accused Times columnist David Brooks of criticizing Obama because he wants Obama to be an “anodyne black man” who would “lose, nobly, and then the country could go back to its rightful owners.” Timothy Noah, then at Slate, argued in 2008 that calling Obama “skinny” flirted with racism. (“When white people are invited to think about Obama’s physical appearance, the principal attribute they’re likely to dwell on is his dark skin. Consequently, any reference to Obama’s other physical attributes can’t help coming off as a coy walk around the barn.”) Though the term elitist has been attached to candidates of both parties for decades (and to John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign), the writer David Shipler has called it racist when deployed against Obama. (“ ‘Elitist’ is another word for ‘arrogant,’ which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”)

MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Obama for playing too much golf, Lawrence O’Donnell accused him of “trying to align … the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.” (McConnell had not mentioned Tiger Woods; it was O’Donnell who made the leap.) After Arizona governor Jan Brewer confronted Obama at an airport tarmac, Jonathan Capehart concluded, “A lot of people saw it as her wagging her finger at this president who’s also black, who should not be there.” Martin Bashir hung a monologue around his contention that Republicans were using the initialism IRS as a code that meant “nigger.” Chris Matthews calls Republicans racist so often it is hard to even keep track.


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