Sunday, April 20, 2014

Chait, Obama and The Politics of Race

Jonathan Chait's recent cover story for New York magazine, "The Color of His Presidency" generated much teeth gnashing among the Inside the Beltway crowd (the sheer volume of back and forth surely a "win" for Chait, as the media traffics these days almost exclusively in generating conflict without much more). Chait's thesis is that race has come to infect the "Age of Obama," but his claim has the familiar whiff of "both sides do it," tagging "all" supporters of the President of seeing a racial bias behind Republican opposition and "all" his opponents equally offended at the accusation, without either side being able to see the legitimate (?) claims of the other. 

Personally, I think the obstruction the President has experienced has much more to do with his political party than his skin color. That a President Hillary Clinton would have been any more successful at getting Republicans to work with her may be a thought experiment we see in action in 2017, but the tactics Obama has seen from Republicans harkens back to the days of Bill Clinton, the key differences being our 42nd President had a stronger economic wind at his back and foes who attempted to impeach him over something the American people felt was unworthy of such a severe punishment. Now, the gerrymandering of many Congressional districts affords Republicans a free pass to block bills that were once uncontroversial, extract concessions on social welfare programs in exchange for doing nothing more than paying the country's bills, and suffer no consequences for blocking proposals like the minimum wage and background checks for gun purchases that have overwhelming public support.

And while it might be fair to cherry pick a few instances when MSNBC hosts were over zealous in their defense of the President, the simple fact is that there is a racial aspect to what the President has suffered through. You simply cannot wish away the images of Obama-as-witch-doctor or Obama-as-tribesman-with-a-bone-in-his-nose, the marchers who swung a Confederate flag outside the White House, or the litany of elected and appointed Republican officials who have been caught on tape or through email, spewing racially charged venom at the President (Chait cites one, who, was, oh, only a sitting federal district court judge). 

Interestingly, Chait ignores the vilest racial taunt that occurred during Obama's presidency, the ugly strain of "birtherism" that was not relegated to some dark corner of the Internet but rather, put front and center by elected Members of Congress and at least one putative Republican Presidential candidate (Donald Trump) that questioned the President's legitimacy to hold office. This alone would be enough to suggest a racial animus (invariably, the suggestion that the President was born in Kenya spoke for itself in terms coded language), but taken together with the overtly racial taunts that have been levied against Obama, it is not paranoia, as Chait suggests, that animates the belief on the left that a party that is overwhelmingly white, largely Southern, and not very subtle in some of their jabs against the President deploys racial animus as a weapon. 

Indeed, credence might be lent to Republicans were their opposition not so reflexive and unyielding. Major pieces of legislation like the Affordable Care Act (itself an idea that originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation) may have been improved through bi-partisan cooperation, but Republicans refused to play ball. That Obama permanently locked in 99% of the tax cuts initially passed by George W. Bush was met with howls over the tiny pinch the increase to those earning more than $400,000 would feel. The lie that "both sides do it" is illustrated by looking at the number of major pieces of legislation George W. Bush got Democratic votes for - on everything from tax cuts to bailing out Wall Street, No Child Left Behind to the Iraq War resolution.  

Meanwhile, "welfare queen" language that began under Ronald Reagan was rebranded as calling people who are on food stamps "takers" (no word on multi-national corporations whose snouts are deep in the public trough), dudgeon was high anytime the President had the temerity to take a vacation (never mind that his predecessor set the modern standard for loafing) and the stream of Voter ID laws that have passed since Obama's election and disproportionately affect minority groups are surely not coincidental, be they to simply depress Democratic turnout or target African-Americans directly is a distinction without a difference. Any hope that the "fever will break" as Obama famously thought would happen upon his re-election have long since been dashed and whether Hillary Clinton or another Democrat succeeds Obama, the fact is, Republicans simply cannot countenance a member of the other party in the White House, regardless of their skin color. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

No comments:

Post a Comment