The Obama Presidency: A Political Tightrope

Posted on 18. Sep, 2009 by in Uncategorized

I initially set out to write a post about Obama (correctly) calling Kanye West a “jackass.” But during my search for the latest news or updates on Jackass-gate (everything’s a “gate” nowadays, right?), I was struck by something else: the overwhelming, continuous amount of news and commentary about President Obama and race.

I mean, I get it, Obama’s the first president who’s not white — obviously his election was going to heighten racial awareness. But he wasn’t sworn in as President of American Race Relations. He’s in charge of leading the country, a country with real issues and in need of repair.

Despite this, race (there’s that word again) has never been far from the surface of the presidential dialogue. And more recently, the “race issue” has breached the waters completely, revealing itself a leviathan sized, floating elephant in the room.

With this focus, Obama is in an unbelievably precarious situation. He’s not only tasked with his presidential duties (the oft-heard refrain of: war in Afghanistan, health care, economy, and on), he’s also carrying the burden of racial expectations each time he stands before a podium. If the recent media scrutiny is any indication, one minute slip-of-the-tongue could set off a racial A-bomb that will engulf the country in its mushroom cloud.

Just look at what’s been generated from Joe Wilson’s “you lie!” and Obama’s “he’s a jackass” soundbytes over the past two weeks. If taken out of the president/country/media’s current racial context, these two incidents probably are not T-1 worthy for a news outlet–certainly not the latter one. Yet that’s exactly what we’ve seen and more. Everyone has a take, a comment, an angle. There’s been the questioning of Wilson’s racial motives (and reaction to the questioning), a bigger-picture take on the outburst, analysis of Wilson’s apology and dissection of Obama’s response. There was Jimmy Carter’s interjection and the reaction to that. There’s been the stretch to turn Obama’s Kanye comment racial (see bullet four) and then the stretch to apply it back to Wilson. Then there’s, of course, there’s been poetic waxing on what all of this means.

Maybe it’s naivete on my part to not have seen this coming, but I didn’t assume each breath of Obama’s four years would simultaneously be examined for its political and racial ramifications. Yet these are the constraints that the president is operating within. The takeaway is that his pressure is doubled and the stakes raised. It appears his presidency will only be labeled a success if, at the end of his term, he has managed to navigate the country to a better position in Afghanistan, re-negotiated a faltering health care system and resuscitated the economy all while advancing the way we look at and discuss race.

Talk about walking a presidential tightrope. So far, Obama has traversed the wire almost flawlessly. But it’s hard to imagine he won’t make a misstep along the way, and fairly or not, it doesn’t appear there’s a safety net in place to catch him when he does.

***UPDATE***: From the Saturday New York Times article “Obama Rejects Race as Lead Cause of Criticism:”

Mr. Obama will appear on five Sunday talk shows — an unprecedented step for a president — to promote his health care plan. The television networks broadcast brief parts of their interviews on Friday evening, all of which focused on a question the White House has sought to avoid all week: Has race played a role in the debate?

Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, said “race is such a volatile issue in this society” that he conceded it had become difficult for people to tell whether it was simply a backdrop of the current political discussion or “a predominant factor.”

“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,” he told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”

Obama focused on the political rather than the racial, skillfully directing the talk to politics, saying “ ‘Even though we’re having a passionate disagreement here, we can be civil to each other, and we can try to express ourselves acknowledging that we’re all patriots, we’re all Americans and not assume the absolute worst in people’s motives. ‘” He said TV and the blogs were stoking the fire of the racial issue.

Obama also said that race was not the “overriding” issue. Whether or not he believes that to be true, it’s important to note that he did not discredit race as an issue — he just chose to downplay it. It’s a tactic we have and will continue to see.

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3 Responses to “The Obama Presidency: A Political Tightrope”

  1. Carla

    19. Sep, 2009

    I think Obama, his wife and his close advisers knew this would happen. Not saying it’s any less frustrating but, I’m sure the constant presence of RACE was listed as a con when Obama was deciding to run. I’m curious whether Obama’s experience is causing some folks to look anew at their black coworkers or neighbors and wonder if they also experience the same racial spotlight–albeit not on a presidential scale.

  2. Collin Orcutt

    19. Sep, 2009

    I agree with you–I’m sure that they knew and expected, at least to some level, the scrutiny. I think it’s just unfortunate that everything he does is being looked at dually through a lens of successful decisions and their racial implications.

    One good that could come out of Obama’s pressure is if he was causing other people to consider what it’s like to live under racial expectations. However his presidency turns out, I think it’s safe to say that the racial dialogue in this country will be forever changed.


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