I feel extremely bad and incredibly worried for Barack Obama. I like the president and most of his policies. However, the Trayvon Martin circus has grown so big and unruly, it threatens to derail the president's much-deserved second term.
For reasons discussed in my The Huffington Post piece, "Obama Sings: Republicans Get the Hook," I still believe Obama has a good chance at re-election, no matter who the opponent is. After all, unemployment keeps fortuitously drifting down, while the stock market keeps inching up. Whether Obama had anything significant to do with those trends is immaterial. They are reliable bellwethers of a favorable November outcome.
Unfortunately, a nasty curveball has thrown Obama's sunny chances into peril. That curveball is 28-year-old George Zimmerman's fatal Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on a rainy night in Sanford, Fla. The ensuing firestorm has created a no-win situation for the country and the president. If Zimmerman is charged and found guilty of a crime, it will be viewed by one extreme as reverse racist mob justice. If Zimmerman is not charged or is found not guilty, there is a chance of riots erupting across the fruited plain. Firm evidence of the hysteria stoked by both sides in this sad and unnecessary tragedy.
I do not intend to definitively weigh in on either side of this radioactive case, except to say the following:
1. Florida's overly broad stand-your-ground law must be tossed out or amended to exclude cases where the gun user goes out of his way to provoke an attack. Additionally, no person arrested for repeated acts of violence should be allowed to join a neighborhood watch group, let alone commandeer it.
2. A person, of whatever color, dressed in whatever clothing, has the right to walk the streets of America without fear of violence or intimidation. Sadly, that is not true for black Americans walking through certain black neighborhoods or white Americans walking through certain black neighborhoods. Nor is it true for black Americans walking through certain white neighborhoods. It's not even true for white Americans walking through certain white neighborhoods, as I experienced when confronted by a Charles Bronson wanna-be in a large SUV while I had the audacity to take a leisurely stroll, during a recent visit to see an old friend in the lovely upscale confines of Reston, Va. (the very state where George Zimmerman was raised).
3. The false caricatures must stop. Though both Zimmerman and Obama are half-white, only in Obama's case does the appearance of the man dictate how we characterize him. By that logic, Zimmerman should be classified as Hispanic or "Hispanic-looking," as noted by eyewitnesses to the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy. After all, Zimmerman would be differentiated as "Hispanic" were he victimized by a northern European "white male." If we can be honest about these distinctions, then we can stop framing this case as a "black-white" issue, with all the ugly baggage that comes with that inflammatory distinction (especially in the South).
4. Blame-stream media needs to stop misleadingly editing documents in order to convict Zimmerman in the court of public opinion, as well as portraying Martin as just a "normal teenage boy," including repeatedly running photos of him from four years ago. The undisputed facts are that Trayvon Martin was suspended from high school on three occasions -- for spraying graffiti, carrying a controlled substance and chronic truancy, which was a chief reason he was visiting Sanford, Fla. A bag filled with women's jewelry and a "burglary tool" were found in Martin's backpack during one incident, though no charges were filed. Sorry. Those are not the behaviors of your "average teenage kid." None of these facts remotely justifies Martin's or anyone's killing, but they, along with Zimmerman's run-ins with the law, should be part of any responsible reporting on the incident.
5. There are clearly parties milking this tragedy for vain, self-serving and even criminal ends. As you know from my Forbes post, "Kony 2012 Filmmaker, Jason Russell, Becomes the Spectacle: Lessons in Atrocity Tourist," I do not cotton to tragedy exploiters, whatever their stripe or cause. Unfortunately, in the Martin case, these opportunists are deliberately stoking the flames of violent irrationality, including thousands of death threats against Zimmerman and his family (many in response to the Twitter hash tag #KillZimmerman). The New Black Panther Party -- designated "a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization" by the Southern Poverty Law Center and self-proclaimed heirs to former Black Panthers such as Illinois Representative Bobby Rush -- offered a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman's death or capture.
In spite of this viperous backdrop, one of my favorite film directors, Spike "Do the Right Thing" Lee, unconscionably re-tweeted to his 250,000 followers what he thought was Zimmerman's home address. Lee surely knew that his hypocritical violation of due process, a de facto fatwa, might engender the "vigilante justice" that he supposedly decried. Regardless of the financial settlement he has since arranged, Lee should be charged with inciting criminal mischief, reckless and malicious endangerment, and for upending the lives of an elderly Florida couple, David and Elaine McClain, who had to flee their home because of death threats linked to Lee's erroneous re-tweet.
Instead of such grossly irresponsible, celebrity-stoked vitriol, we need calm and balanced justice. Unfortunately, as I warned in my Forbes post, "Sandusky, Paterno And The Presumption Of Innocence," those screaming loudest for justice not only pollute the jury pool with their shenanigans, but hamper the objective, diligent investigation needed for there to even be a jury pool. If there is any standing down required, it is from those who are not letting Florida law enforcement do their job free of intrusion. It will only sabotage the righteous result they seek.
Ironically, in this malicious environment, even my fairly distributed and benign comments will be misconstrued, as invariably occurs when one wades into hotly debated holy wars. While I will be subject to the usual ad hominem malevolence by those who misread my intent or who blow up a sentence to buttress their preordained and assiduously stoked outrage, my frustration pales in comparison to what our president now faces on this loaded issue.
For, despite everything Mr. Obama might privately wish, race is again the topic du jour in America's national discourse. This is welcome news to those whose political, media and nonprofit fortunes depend on always and everywhere putting race front and center. Unfortunately, the current volatile form of this discussion undercuts our mixed-race President's signature narrative trope: he is a racially, and, thus, politically, transcendent leader.
It's a trope that many swing voters bought in 2008, even if they now balk at Obama's populist approach to "tax reform," his cherry-picking intrusions into private enterprise (as of now, GM and Chrysler are success stories, though Solyndra is defunct), and his expansion of the welfare state and government debt.
Back in 2008, these swing voters forgave Obama's liberal orthodoxy because electing Barack Hussein Obama was "historic." However, the history card is out the window this time around. Nevertheless, because of his policy triumphs -- killing Bin Laden, bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ending stop-loss, raising CAFE standards, increasing health care access, opposing Israeli settlements while affirming Israeli security, decreasing unnecessary defense spending while improving U.S. soft power abroad -- as of late February, Obama expected to retain a sufficient number of swing voters in key battleground states. Sadly, thanks to the events unfolding in Sanford, he is primed to lose those voters in droves, even in Florida, where it seems as if the vociferous Trayvon Martin protesters seem hell-bent on making up for their impotence during the 2000 Florida recount, when a GOP rabble intimidated local election officials into aggressively challenging every Democratic vote. Oh, Florida.
In the 2008 Presidential election, Obama won 95 percent of the African-American vote and 65 percent of the Latino vote. In 2012, he cannot expect to get higher percentages of these diehard voting blocs, though he might lose Latino votes if Zimmerman hatred evolves into demonizing of Hispanics more broadly.
However, Obama won the last election not because of his black and Hispanic backing, but because he captured a healthy plurality or majority of swing and independent voters. In every case where the state was a toss-up -- including Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida -- Obama triumphed. Much was made of Obama's passionate support among young voters, but post-election studies showed that Obama did not significantly increase young voter turnout. At least not in greater numbers than turned out for Mr. Clinton.
Rather, Obama won because he convinced white middle-aged voters -- who were either registered independents like myself, moderate Republicans or Democratic centrists -- to take a chance on the private-sector-challenged "community organizer." Sadly, I was unable to vote in the 2008 election because I was suddenly out of town on Election Day. Had I the chance, I likely would have pulled the lever for Obama, though I backed Hillary in the Democratic primary and McCain in the general election until Palin revealed her decidedly un-presidential incuriosity (lamented in my The Huffington Post piece, "Why Republicans Embrace Simpletons and How It Hurts America").
Though it is hard to know what I would have done in the privacy of the voting booth, I've been surprisingly comforted by Obama's performance in office. While I bridle at his unhelpful us-vs.-them demonizing of bankers, domestic energy executive and millionaires more broadly (I am certainly not one), and while I am no fan of tax increases or increased government expenditures even for environmental causes I hold dear, Obama's list of achievements outweighs the negatives that come with his initiative-sapping, job-destroying, "fair-share" Pablum.
Yet, his accomplishments are being tragically jeopardized by that ugly, divisive third rail in American politics: race. The whispered, if naive and tokenist, disappointment of swing voters that electing a black president actually intensified racial conflict, scapegoating and hysteria will not show up in campaign polls or raucous street protests. It will subtly manifest when swing voters quietly and humbly let their feelings be known in the privacy of the voting booth. Against the indecorous backdrop of a hoodie-wearing Congressman and New Black Panther death threats, a safe old shoe like Mitt Romney starts to look mighty appealing. Beware the Silent Majority, Mr. President, as you fuel the rabble's fury.
Indeed, for all his good intentions, for all his admirable pragmatism, Mr. Obama has only himself to blame for his predicament. He promised to be a transformative figure in America politics, a third way between the country's polar extremes. Indeed, Mr. Obama has been amazingly amenable. He has been as gracious and conciliatory as his low-key constitutional lawyer persona allows.
Nevertheless, a transformative politician would have found common ground around a core set of governing principles. In that regard, he has not been transformative in the key areas in which swing voters were hoping when they elected their first African-American president:
• Shrinking the size of government;
• Reducing our crippling debt;
• And Race.
Above all, Race.
Bill Clinton, for instance, risked enormous political capital, and his own re-election, by tackling a huge Democratic sacred cow, welfare, by reaching across the aisle, and confronting entrenched interests in his own party, to pass much-needed welfare reform. For all his personal peccadilloes, Clinton attained transcendent status for that arduous policy achievement.
Barack Obama now has that chance himself -- however, on a grander scale than was possible with a Caucasian president like Mr. Clinton. Mr. Obama can speak directly to that original American sin, the pernicious institution of slavery, the very sin of the "3/5" human enshrined in our founding document, the sin of Dred Scott, Plessey V. Ferguson, and Little Rock's Central High. Moreover, Mr. Obama can take us beyond that sordid past into a productive, post-quota future, where Emersonian self-reliance rules again supreme as the defining principle of this Republic.
To achieve that end, Mr. Obama needs to turn the Trayvon Martin circus into his version of Clinton's "Sister Souljah Moment." He can do so by forcefully speaking due process and the rule of law to those calling for vigilante justice. He can call out grandstanding opportunists like Al "Tawana Brawley" Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters and Mr. Rush. And he can adroitly direct rightful black outrage towards the greater tragedies that afflict African-Americans on a daily basis: the stark reality of black-on-black crime; the unprecedented levels of black single-parent households; the shameful rate of black teen dropouts; and the increasing failure of most American black students to keep up with their academic peers here and abroad, even when black students hail from wealthy suburban backgrounds.
Finally, he can make it unequivocally clear that these enduring problems are not due to the old tired bogeyman of "white privilege" favored by the merchants of external blame called out in my Forbes piece, "Four Things I Learned From Coaching 'Poor Blacks Kids.'"
That kind of tough, frank love would lift Obama above the racial frame into the pure land of political transcendence. Unfortunately, to date, Mr. Obama has not demonstrated the courage to Stand This Necessary Ground.
As a result, one of the most productive presidents in modern memory, who won election in part because of the historic symbolism of his race, has a strong chance of going down come November for failing to use that symbolism to forge a post-racial consensus.