Princeton University professor Cornell West's silly, shoot-from the lip slur of President Obama as a black puppet predictably got the headline that he knew it would for two reasons. The first is that the slur came not from the professional Obama baiters, Sarah Palin, Limbaugh, and Michelle Bachman, Tea Party leaders and activists, the shrill pack of rightwing talk show jocks, bloggers and websites. It came from West, a mediagenic, leftist black academic. Even that might not have drawn mention since West has repeatedly hectored, harangued, and tweaked Obama as a sell-out to corporate interests and for allegedly saying and doing nothing to alleviate black suffering. The strong language West used calling Obama a "black puppet" guaranteed the momentary tantalizing headline.
But West's slur got traction for another reason. It came close on the heels of a recent Gallup poll that showed that Obama's approval rating had taken a dip among blacks. It's still high, but a dip nonetheless. The question then is did the president's approval ratings drop among blacks because of the disaffection, unease, and impatience that an increasing number of blacks feel toward Obama? Probably, and the chill toward Obama is based on a grossly inflated, wildly unrealistic expectation of what Obama could and can do in the White House, and has done.
The Congressional Black Caucus was the first to signal impatience with Obama last year after when they publicly demanded that he spend more money and initiate special programs to reduce the near Great Depression levels of joblessness in poor black communities. There was even some talk that Caucus members would vote against his financial reform bill if he didn't kick in more funds for job programs for blacks. It was just talk. But the empty threat got some attention, and was the first sign that the near solid black support Obama had enjoyed during and after his election win was fraying at the edges.
But Obama has never deviated from the line that he virtually set in stone 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. He had little choice. 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.
However, this was not to cold shoulder talk of race, the plight of the poor, the crisis of unemployment, education and the criminal justice reform, and the staggering health care crisis that slams poor blacks. It's just a matter of style, timing and nuance. The string of Obama initiatives on health care reform, increased funding for education, a tough consumer protection agency, a nod toward drug law reform, the appointments of legions of African-Americans to agency and sub cabinet posts have been Obama's way to deal with the special needs and chronic problems that confront blacks. At the same time he walks a fine line. He knows that he's being watched hawk like by his powerful political foes for even the faintest sign that he's tilting toward blacks. This would be ammunition to turn the low intensity war they wage against his initiatives into a full blown racial counter attack against him.
This would fatally type him and his administration as anything but a race neutral president and ensure that his legislation and initiatives would be twisted, tied-up, and straight-jacketed. It would also stir a push back among some within his party. His administration would be hopelessly hamstrung. His 2012 re-election bid would instantly be transformed from a tough but eminently winnable race, into a hard, time consuming uphill war.
Then there's the nature of what the presidency is and entails.
Obama, as all presidents, 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 presidency by definition is a series of deft political compromises, conciliation, give and take, trade-offs, quid-pro-quos, and straight out horse trading. Presidents must navigate through the treacherous shoals of the myriad special interests that routinely dominate beltway politics. This is the price that all presidents must pay to achieve pragmatic, effective White House governance. He's done that as well as the better presidents. To call Obama a black puppet tells more about the name caller than the president. But it still got the predictable headline.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com