What does the recent brouhaha about race in the presidential election tell us about Barack Obama? On the one hand, the scuffle has revealed him as more ruthless and cynical than he might like to appear to his young, idealistic supporters, which may not be a bad thing. That he is not as nice as he looks is good news if he is to counter the world’s tyrants. But his campaign has also revealed a less flattering side: a willingness to silence political opponents by airing imaginary grievances. Obama apparently considers false indignation a legitimate weapon in his political arsenal.
This cheap tactic is every bit as reprehensible as the ad hominem attacks and negative campaigning that he affects to deplore. The Obama campaign’s method of confounding rivals by prematurely crying foul was evident early in the primary season, when its South Carolina spokeswoman produced a memo detailing multiple instances in which Clinton and her husband—the most eloquent, effective, and well-liked Democrat in recent memory—had supposedly inflamed racial sensitivities. One such instance came when Bill Clinton—who had once been celebrated by Toni Morrison, no less, as “America’s first black president”—dared to question the Illinois senator’s account of his opposition to the Iraq War, describing it as a “fairy tale.” The memo somehow construed the remark as an example of playing the race card. Race eventually became a fault line in the campaign, and the former president’s observation after the South Carolina primary that Obama had done well in the state, just as Jesse Jackson had in 1984 and 1988, prompted a media firestorm.
Obama supporters could be forgiven for noting that the candidate himself never made an issue of his race during the long primary campaign. But since winning the nomination, he’s been more than willing to do so. He cited his racial origins in his Berlin speech, saying, “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city,” and after his return home, he warned voters that Republicans would try to scare them by pointing out that he didn’t “look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” His campaign at first hotly denied that he was drawing attention to race. Instead, it indignantly dismissed McCain’s criticisms of the remarks. The Republican candidate was “misinterpreting” both the “tenor and the meaning” of Obama’s words, according to Obama spokesman Bill Burton. The following day, however, Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, admitted on Good Morning America that the candidate had indeed been alluding to his race. The Obama campaign issued no apology to McCain, who stood by the description of his campaign manager, Rick Davis, that Obama had played the race card “from the bottom of the deck.”
Obama has a right to resist being typecast, and he’s correct to bemoan “the assumption that African-Americans can’t support the white candidate, whites can’t support the African-American candidate,” as he put it in his victory speech in South Carolina earlier this year. But if he is truly the postracial candidate that he claims to be, voters might expect something more elevated than preemptive accusations of racial insensitivity. By now, most of us—white and black, male and female—have been on the receiving end of such accusations at one point or another. If Obama makes it to the White House, can we realistically expect him to abandon this bullying but effective ruse? Will critics be reluctant to assess the policies and actions of a President Obama, lest they be publicly castigated by the president’s posse for committing an unintended or imaginary slur?
Add to this Obama’s inability to admit when he has been wrong—as when he found it impossible to acknowledge the success of the surge in Iraq long advocated by McCain—and his failure to explain why he was unable to make time to visit injured troops in Germany, yet managed to fit in a gym workout on the same day, and a different character emerges from the amiable, equitable, affable persona he likes to present to the world.