President Obama will play the race card when he needs to play it. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. He shouted to a crowd at Bowie State University in Maryland not to make him look bad. The pitch to black voters is to get out in November and vote like your life depends on it. That means voting to save a slew of endangered Congressional Democrats. The stakes are well-known. A GOP grab of the House, even without the Senate, will almost certainly mean endless committee investigations of Obama administration actions, funding and appropriation stalls and sabotage, and a relentless no to every Obama initiative from energy to immigration reform. The escalation of congressional wars would be distracting, debilitating, and pose deep danger to Obama's reelection bid in 2012.
Appealing directly to black voters for help is not a desperation move. It's a smart and necessary political move. Black voters are more than just the underpin of the Democratic Party. They also make up a significant percent of the voters in districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Indiana, and Florida where endangered Democrats are battling insurgent GOP candidates to keep their seats. The strategic placement of black voters made the difference in Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania in 2008 in his White House win. In these states McCain gapped Obama with white blue collar, rural, and older white voters. Black voters filled in the gap. November is no different. Polls show that there is a high interest among black voters in the mid-term election. Apathy and indifference is not as endemic as assumed.
But it will take soul stirring and direct appeals to insure that they get to the polls. Obama is the only Democrat that can do it. He's still wildly popular among blacks. And their anger and fear that his presidency is in danger heightens the sense of urgency to vote.
This isn't the first time Obama has made a racial pitch. During the campaign his candidacy was on the line in the first Democratic presidential primary in January 2008 in South Carolina. Then Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was the front runner. She appeared to have a lock on the black vote in the state where blacks made up nearly half the Democratic voting numbers. A win there and she would have had the wind blowing gale force at her back as she rolled into the other primaries in the South where black voters made up a substantial percent of the Democratic primary voters. Obama quickly dialed up the one African-American with the name recognition, cachet and appeal to stir a racial course correction away from Hillary. That was Oprah. She held two giant campaign rallies complete with the gay bashing, but immensely popular Gospel singer Donnie McClurkin. Oprah virtually commanded blacks to do their racial duty and back Obama. It worked and the rest is history.
There's another compelling reason to justify Obama's politically practical and savvy necessity to use race. The GOP has done it for four decades and is doing it openly and quietly this time around.
The shouts, taunts, spitting, catcalls, joker posters, N-word slurs, Confederate and Texas Lone Star flag-waving by tea party activists at their early rallies, the billboards that crop up along highways and back roads that depict Obama as a communist, terrorist, and racially mocking caricatures, and the recycled racially leaden code words, slogans, and digs have been an indispensable political necessity for the GOP.
The GOP could not have been competitive during campaign 2008 without the bail out from white conservative voters. Elections are usually won by candidates with a solid and impassioned core of bloc voters. The GOP's conservative, white base, votes consistently and faithfully. And in elections going back three decades have voted in a far greater percentage than Hispanics and blacks in midterm elections. Polls have repeatedly shown that they are just as enthusiastic about this election partly stirred by rage at Obama, the Democrats, and government. The usual undertow of race is a driving force.
The GOP leaders have long known that their constituents can be easily aroused to vote and shout loudly on the emotional wedge issues; abortion, family values, anti-gay marriage and tax cuts. For fourteen months, they whipped up their hysteria and borderline racism against health care reform. These are the very voters that GOP presidents and aspiring presidents, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush, and McCain and legions of GOP governors, senators and congresspersons banked for victory and to seize and maintain regional and national political dominance.
Obama did the right thing when faced with the prospect of defeat in a key presidential primary by Hillary. He played directly to the black vote. In November his presidency doesn't hinge on a massive black voter turnout. His prestige, legislative agenda, and orderly White House governance do. If it takes playing the race card to get results then there's nothing wrong with that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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