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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

How President Obama Took Race off the Table -- Again

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Much has been made that defeated GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney got more white votes than any other presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush's presidential win in 1988. But the reason he did can't be chalked up simplistically to racial fear, dislike and disgust with President Obama. An untold number of white Romney voters chose him based on party loyalty, political alliance, voting tradition, and a sincere belief that government is too big, intrusive, and costly.

There is more. An estimated eight to 10 million registered white voters did not vote. The reasons they stayed at home are as varied as the voters themselves. The one probable thread that runs through their non-voting is that Romney simply was not appealing enough to them to bother to go to the polls. This further underscored a point reiterated countless times in the aftermath of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and that's that a white presidential candidate can't win the White House based on race alone.

Obama insured that. In his victory acknowledgement speech on Election Night at the McCormick Center in Chicago he made a perfunctory reference to ethnicity when he ticked off the groups that were instrumental in his victory as well as the fast-changing voter demographics of the country. His paint of the country in the broadest tapestry has been signature and carefully calibrated from the moment that as a first term U.S. Senator he announced was a presidential candidate in 2007.

In his 20-minute-plus speech he used the word "race" exactly one time. He did not use it as a direct racial reference. He used it to make the point that people could come together across all lines for change. In nearly every speech between his candidacy announcement that year and his reelection victory speech, racial references have been virtually non-existent. Obama did his political homework well on this. When he announced he was a candidate in 2007, the air was filled with endless speculation that race, either covert or blatant, would be a potential stumbling block to his candidacy. Countless surveys and polls consistently showed that many whites harbored negative racial biases and views about African Americans. On Election Day in 2008, there was the concern that many whites who told pollsters that they would vote for Obama were hedging or flat out lying out of fear of being branded a racist. Another worry was that the GOP with its long history of skilled use of sneaky code words, terms, and language to inflame many whites against blacks and minorities would do the same again. This would sow suspicion, mistrust, and antipathy against a black candidate and translate into a racial backlash on Election Day.

GOP presidential rival John McCain took the high ground. He publicly declared that race would not be a factor in his hits on Obama and he meant it. This didn't stop the legion of right-wing bloggers, websites, and talk show hosts from lambasting Obama as a closet Muslim extremist, anti-American, and socialist. It didn't stick. When Obama faced a real crisis with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright where race might have caused some doubts and second thoughts about him, it quickly fizzled. This was in part because Obama had adroitly run an absolute race-neutral campaign, in part because it was the height of idiocy to think that a credible Democratic presidential candidate could be any of those silly and blatantly baiting slurs, and in greater part because the days were over when race was the driving force in defining a presidential campaign and election.

National elections hinged on voter's political loyalties, education, income, gender, sense of economic well-being or hardship, and good feeling or foreboding about the future and the direction of the country, not race. The changing age, ethnic, and gender and sexual preferences of millions of voters nationally insured that no candidate could bait their way through the use of racial code words to the White House again. This was plainly evident in elections in the last two decades. A substantial number of whites have voted for black candidates in senate, congressional, state legislative, gubernatorial, mayor, and city council races, even voting for them when their opponents were white. Obama was a good example of that. He was elected to the Illinois house, senate, and the U.S. Senate with top heavy white support.

In 2012, Obama built up an impregnable firewall of trust and loyalty and admiration across all ethnic lines. The slightest racial dig, inference, let alone the crude race baiting against him from some circles, was met with instant and fierce public outrage. Romney, followed McCain's tactic and made not the slightest reference to race during the campaign. It would have been a campaign killer. This was the ultimate signal that Obama had taken race off the nation's political table, maybe even permanently.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.