The Congressional Black Caucus got another painful reminder that President Obama is not black President Obama. In a press interview Obama bluntly said that he would not propose any special initiatives for blacks. Obama's sharp retort was in direct response to questions about how he'd solve a glaring problem and a glaring demand from the Caucus. The problem is the astronomical high unemployment rate for blacks, especially young black males. Latest job figures show joblessness for young black males matches and in some parts of the country tops the unemployment rate at the height of the 1930s Great Depression.
The Congressional Black Caucus demanded that Obama specifically shell out more money and formulate more programs to help the black jobless and to aid cash strapped minority broadcasters and minority businesses. The Caucus lightly saber rattled Obama with the threat of delaying or even opposing his financial regulation plan if he didn't play ball. The Caucus is about as likely to buck Obama on the financial legislation when the final House vote is taken as the American Bankers Association is to back it. But the Caucus made its point. And so did Obama when he reiterated that he won't propose any new programs for blacks.
Obama set that in stone from the first day of his presidential campaign. In his candidate declaration speech in Springfield, Illinois in February 2007, he made only the barest mention of race. The focus was on change, change for everyone. He had little choice. The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped. Obama would have had no hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, let alone the presidency, if there had been any hint that he embraced the race-tinged politics of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism. The month after he got in the White House he mildly chided Attorney General Eric Holder for calling Americans cowards for not candidly talking about race.
Obama got a bitter taste of the misery that race can cause a president him when in an unscripted moment he spoke his mind and blasted a Cambridge cop for cuffing and manhandling Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. The loud squeals that he was a bigot, racist and anti police for siding with Gates bounced off the Oval Office walls. A chagrined Obama back pedaled fast and asked all for forgiveness. There would no White House repeat of the Gates fiasco.
Obama has clung tightly to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for a Democratic presidential candidate to win elections, and to govern after he won. The blueprint required that the Democratic presidential candidate tout a strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, tepid proposals to control greenhouse emissions, mild tax reform for the middle class, a cautious plan for affordable health care, pro business solutions to joblessness, and make only the most genteel reproach of Wall Street.
The Clinton blueprint also required a Democratic presidential candidate to formulate a moderate agenda on civil rights, poverty, failing inner city public schools, the HIV-AIDS crisis, and the racially skewed criminal justice system in written policy statements. And then say virtually nothing about any of these things on the campaign trail. Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry followed the Clinton blueprint to the letter during their campaign and if either had won, the likelihood is they would not made these problems priority items in their White House.
Obama is tugged hard by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas and all vie hard to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests. The health care reform battle and the decision to escalate in Afghanistan or near textbook examples of this. The two dozen back door meetings Obama had with the major pharmaceuticals and private insurers at the White House in February virtually guaranteed that a big chunk of the health care reform package would reflect the interests and the wishes of the health care industry. This is the price to be paid to get their backing.
It's the same with Afghanistan. The Pentagon wanted and demanded a huge ramp up in American ground forces in the country. Given the pressure to win the war, and the power of the military and the defense industry, Obama was in no real position to say no.
Obama's no to the Congressional Black Caucus on black joblessness and a beef up of minority businesses has everything to do with the price of White House governance. That price is a cautious, conciliatory, and above all, a race neutral presidency.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.