The Black President Trap

04/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"For every factual attack, there are a thousand possibilities...and all of them strike down together."

It's a line from China Mieville's speculative fiction novel The Scar, but it could easily describe today's politics.

President Obama has been described as a socialist and tool of banks and big business; a "racist...who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" and someone who "hasn't done much for their [i.e., African-Americans'] bottom line" because "so-called black leaders are much more interested in invitations to the White House...than in raising any kind of ruckus that might benefit people in real trouble."

Underlying much of the recent rhetoric is the race issue...yeah, that one, the one the President doesn't seem to want to talk about. Some of the President's opponents have not only asserted that he is a "racist," but even proclaimed, ludicrously but persistently, that he is not an American citizen. (Others have brought guns to Presidential rallies, something worth mentioning only to banish the obvious thought.) In the State of the Union, the President was happy to talk about jobs (23 mentions), the economy (15 mentions), and energy (15 mentions). He did not utter the words "race," or "racial," and the only time he mentioned the word "Black" was in the phrase "Black Tuesday," referring to the stock market crash of 1929.

In the Presidential race of 2008, President Obama did not truly address race head-on until the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy forced his hand... and then he delivered what is widely considered to be a brilliant, landmark speech. There has not been a corresponding moment yet in this Presidency. If there is one, it might (might) come if African-Americans urge the President to be accountable on economic equality. There has been one White House meeting on race, during the white-out of the Washington "snowpocalypse." The players for the off-the-record event were the President, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Marc Morial of the National Urban League, and Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network. (Ninety-seven year old Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women couldn't make it because of the precipitation.)

The three invitees who were able to pass the clotted roads came out of the White House and faced the press (with, between them, one umbrella and one hat for shelter) and delivered soundbites as the snowflakes turned their dark garments pale. The event vibrated with the unspoken. Rev. Sharpton said: "We do not seek any special kind of edict ... from the president because he's African-American. We expect to be included in the process." Yet among many African-American political junkies, the conversation was: why were these three organizations deemed to be the messengers representing black interests in the economy? Why not invite some black economists, for one? Economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux, the President of Bennett College, has been writing a series of columns deconstructing the truth behind the unemployment numbers. As she writes, having done some data analysis of the Labor Department's own figures:

Our unemployment rate is not 9.7 percent, as the overall rate is. It is not the 16.7 percent that is officially reported. According to my own calculations, the black unemployment rate is at least 28.7 percent. Would such a rate be acceptable if "all" Americans were experiencing it?

That brings us to the Black President Trap, the one which has been lying, with serrated teeth, under the brush since before the President was elected. On the one hand, if the President is seen as appealing to African-American interests, he risks alienating white (and non-white, non-black) voters. On the other hand, if he fails to deal with the economic realities of African-Americans, he could set the stage for buyer's remorse that prompts some people to sit out voting in the next Presidential election.

Let's go back to the 2008 election and look at the numbers. The popular vote does not determine the Presidency, but it gives us one good metric of voting patterns. So, in 2008, then-Senator Obama got 69.5 million votes; Senator McCain 59.9 million votes. The electoral vote tally was 365 to 173.

What's interesting is who voted in 2008 versus 2004. As the report by Project Vote put it:

Americans of color in 2008 increased by 21 percent from 2004, based on a review of exit polling and preliminary administrative data. Votes cast by Americans ages 18-29 increased by 9 percent. Votes cast by whites in 2008 declined slightly compared to 2004.

Far more African-Americans voted in this election (16.4 million) than the overall margin of victory (9.6 million)... closer than not to a two-to-one ratio. An estimated ninety-six percent of those black voters voted for Obama. A dispirited African-American electorate could seriously mess a black President's re-election bid up.

When former Vice President Dick Cheney chortles that "President Obama is going to be a one-term President," the first scenario that comes to my mind that could achieve that is an absence of black voters at the polls in 2012. Given the lack of credibility of the modern Republican Party in addressing African-American interests or speaking, tonally, to African-American sensibilities (and I think here of the delegates at the 1996 RNC booing General Colin Powell when he dared bring up affirmative action), I cannot envision widespread voting against President Obama if, as anticipated, he runs for re-election. I say "I cannot envision" because things regularly happen in politics that I cannot envision.

What I can envision is an America where, after years of persistent unemployment and a degradation of the quality of life in African-American communities, a lot of potential black voters in 2012 just stay home. Black voters staying home plus an uptick in non-black Americans voting Republican could produce a one-term presidency.

So, what to do? Well, the only defense against an impossible barrage of attacks from different vectors is to attack from different vectors. But the Obama administration has been caught in triage mode, trying to stanch the bleeding from wars and the economy and proposing but not yet executing new initiatives like healthcare. The administration needs to simultaneously act broadly, yet with a clarity of ethics and purpose.

Well, as my one of my friends likes to remind me, blogs are not books. So my next piece will tackle how to spring the "Black President Trap" without getting caught in it...