Crunch Time: American Politics as Usual, Even for the "Transformational" Presidency

09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week's cover story in the weekly magazine the Economist blasted the headline "Crunch Time" with a picture of President Obama. The article's sub-headline clarifies: "The next few weeks could determine the fate of Obama's presidency." The honeymoon's over this soon, apparently.

"If the opinion polls are to be believed, Barack Obama is now, six month into his presidency, no more popular then George W. Bush or Richard Nixon was at the same stage in theirs," the article continues. The story repackages recent history as urgent advice, saying, "On the campaign trail Mr. Obama showed an impressive ability to change gears. He needs to do so again this summer."

But there's an underlying assumption here: a president remarkably good at gear-changing still needs to know when to shift. In the wake of the Crowley-Gates incident and leading up to the so-called "Beer Summit," it seems as if he's stayed in the wrong gear too long. One indicator: last week, the ratio of blog comments about Crowley/Gates/Obama to those about the president's health care proposal was 7 to 1. The reason is clear to the average citizen, even if it's not evident from the inside -- like the reasonable prospects of an Obama administration transforming U.S. policymaking after back-to-back Bush administrations; it was perfectly valid for Americans to believe this president would be capable of transcending the conventional debate on race.

Though not able to manage this news cycle to their advantage, it appears the White House team believes they can manage the issue of race relations in America (and the particularly sensitive area of law enforcement racial profiling of African-American and Hispanic men in communities across the nation) similar to the way they "handled" issues during the campaign. But Obama himself seems to instinctively understand that, now, as president, he must address the racial profiling issue more directly, just as he was forced to deal with the broader issue of race in the campaign on a personal level as a result of his prior close relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright in Chicago.

In his initial comment on Crowley and Gates, President Obama said that, "separate and apart from this incident" there is "a long history of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

At a subsequent impromptu press conference, called to clarify his earlier statement, he said that the country had to be:

Mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding. The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive -- as opposed to negative -- understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.

The word portfolio, clearly, is an understatement in this context. If it could be said with a straight face, for instance, that Moses considered it part of his "job description" to bring the Ten Commandments down from the mountain, then yes, it's safe to say that contributing constructively on racial problems should be found among the "portfolio" of our first African-American president's duties. As careful an orator and wordsmith as Obama is, this cautionary phrasing reads political in the extreme. Befitting, I suppose, a man in the midst of "Crunch Time."

Reading, watching and listening to the potpourri of media pundits suggests that a new paradigm of presidential leadership is required if Obama is to respond to his expanded "portfolio" and the exigencies described by the Economist. Whether the talk show and TV hosts or guests were Larry Elder, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, Chris Matthews, Campbell Brown, Bill O'Reilly, Soledad Obrien, Roland Martin, Jonathan Capehart or columnists Glenn C. Loury, Bob Herbert, Maureen Dowd, Eugene Robinson, Kathleen Parker or Colbert I. King of the Washington Post, the common denominator of all comments is that racial profiling by police and their relationship to African-American and Hispanic men throughout the United States has become a "national issue." Accordingly, it is simply not going to go away without either presidential or some other national initiative.

Columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post suggested:

The genie of race was released from the bottle when America elected its first black president -- we could finally talk about it.

Unfortunately, our little genie is still hostage to old resentments -- haunted by subliminal fears and, like all of us, subject to unconscious motivations. This is why we keep talking about Gates and Crowley -- and why psychologists will never go hungry.

Most Americans are probably relieved to have this conversation, but talk therapy requires honesty. Let's start with this: All races are a little bit racist even as they aim not to be (i.e., we make certain assumptions based on race).

Given those understandings, what happened in Cambridge makes perfect sense from every which way. Gates had every right to be outraged that he was being questioned by a cop for being in his own home. Crowley had every reason to feel outraged that he was being accused of being a racist without provocation or any apparent basis for the charge. Both men were reacting to their personal and cumulative histories.

Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times reflects the opinion closest to the historical experiences of my generation, but probably not that of Obama and his team of advisers. He concluded, after reading the police report in Cambridge, that the real charge against Professor Gates by Sgt. Crowley was "angry while black." He then goes on to say:

The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a 'teachable moment,' but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it -- especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.

I have nothing but contempt for that message.

You can yell at a cop in America. This is not Iran... You can even be wrong in what you are saying. There is no law against that. It is not an offense for which you are supposed to get arrested.

Herbert reminds us that, "Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no reason... Blacks are tired of being treated as 'black' with all the attendant assumptions. Many, if not most, blacks can justify their resentment with stories of being stopped for 'being black.'"

Kathleen Parker also noted that:

Images of white cops billy-clubbing peaceful black protesters are always at a low boil in American memory. More recent incidents of white cops mistakenly shooting innocent blacks also enter the equation.

A white cop looks out the same window of race relations in America and sees a different landscape. To Crowley's mind, maybe things were beginning to feel out of control. Maybe, too, Crowley was unconsciously responding to his perception of Gates as an arrogant academic who knows nothing of his trials as a working-class stiff -- always potentially facing violence while being treated with contempt by those he's charged to protect.

I agree with the Economist; politically, it is "Crunch Time" for Obama. During his campaign, the soon-to-be sitting president said, "We are the ones that we have been waiting for." If so, then why does it seem as if the wait isn't over? The "we" can clearly see that unless there is a qualitative improvement in the relationship between the police in America and African-American and Hispanic men, there will be no sustained peace and domestic tranquility in America.

We've had the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, the 1998 President Clinton White House Commission on Race and Juvenile Justice chaired by now-deceased Professor Hope Franklin and the 2008 Eisenhower Foundation Report evaluating the findings of the Kerner Commission forty years later. The issue of the actions of the police across the country toward African-American and Hispanic men doesn't need another "study" or commission.

If President Obama doesn't yet see the unavoidable strategic relationship between addressing THIS and other important issues on his national agenda, then we -- the "we" who elected him -- should be pro-active and seek to address the nearly ubiquitous and contentious issue of racial profiling by police, collectively, and immediately, ourselves.

We can let President Obama and his team focus on getting new health care legislation through the Congress, and we should support him by urging our representatives in Congress to support the president's plan.

Meanwhile, we can and should take advantage of those structures put in place by Obama shortly after he took office to enable us to be effective in mobilizing support for one or more national issues. I am specifically talking about the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships, headed by Joshua Dubois.

There are distinguished educators, leaders of national religious organizations, police organizations, community leaders nationwide that should come together with the assistance of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships to immediately address racial profiling in America. I understand that a bill has been recently introduced in Congress to outlaw this practice. We should get as much information about this proposed legislation and publicize it on the Internet, and subject it to its provisions, call for its immediate enactment.

We are the "we" who can make ending racial profiling in America part of President Obama's here-and-now agenda, not just another slot in the portfolio of the presidency, competing for attention with other high priority domestic and foreign matters on his agenda.

And, of course, yes, we can be political "realists," but not lower our expectations. As Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza reminds us: "A few backyard beers is some kind of step, but couldn't be expected to remedy the country's long legacy of racism. Even with a black man in the White House."