President Obama Speaks: Race Matters

It took five years, but President Obama, after two successful presidential elections, finally concedes the obvious…in the great American narrative, exceptionalism notwithstanding, Race MattersDavid Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine, sat with the President in a series of interviews that resulted in an estimated 17,000-word profile (which equates to approximately 42-43 pages, double-spaced, with 1 inch margins, in New Times Roman 12-point type).  The conversations took place over hours, sometimes in the White House, sometimes on Air Force 1, some late last year, and some earlier this year.

In this past Sunday’s issue, the Washington Post highlighted the New Yorker interview by pulling 17 points from the 17,000 words.  The items of emphasis ranged from the Race to the NFL, to Marijuana, to Iran, to Syria, to the NSA, to David Snowden, and more.  I have included all 17 summaries below for your review and convenience:

1. The NFL: Obama feels fine about watching football despite the reports of severe concussions and retired players with brain damage. “I would not let my son play pro football,” he said. “But … these guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

2. Obama’s memoir: When Obama leaves the White House, he will write a memoir that literary agent Andrew Wylie predicted would fetch $17 million to $20 million. First lady Michelle Obama has already started to work on her memoir. Marty Nesbitt, Obama’s friend, said the president will likely focus on “human rights, education, and health and wellness.”

3.  Race: Obama acknowledges that the color of his skin might have affect how some Americans perceive his presidency, but he doesn’t think it has a major overall effect one way or the other. “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” he said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

4. What’s in Obama’s bagRemnick tells readers what Marvin Nicholson, Obama’s body man, carries in a bag for the president: “pens, the briefing books, the Nicorette, the Sharpies, the Advil, the throat lozenges, the iPad, the iPod, the protein bars, the bottle of Black Forest Berry Honest Tea.”

5. Obama has started socializing moreObama said he hadn’t socialized more in the past because he has two young daughters at home. “I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with—and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” he said. But now that they’re older, Obama and his wife have been hosting more dinners, with the president drinking a Martini or two, and Obama sometimes pushing guests to stay past 1 a.m. “I’m a night owl! Have another drink,” the president encouraged one set of guests.

6. Obama meets with presidential historians: Obama has had a number of presidential historians over as guests, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Caro, whose work on Lyndon Johnson often is cited as an example of how a president can more effectively get in his agenda through Congress. Remnick writes: “At the most recent dinner he attended at the White House, Caro had the distinct impression that Obama was cool to him, annoyed, perhaps, at the notion appearing in the press that his latest Johnson volume was an implicit rebuke to him. As we were leaving, I said to Obama, ‘You know, my book wasn’t an unspoken attack on you, it’s a book about Lyndon Johnson,’  Caro recalled.” Obama and his team continue to rebuff the idea that more social outings and pressure would lead Republicans to embrace his ideas. Obama pointed out that when Johnson “lost that historic majority [in Congress], and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most Presidents at one point or another have.”

7. Marijuana: Obama said he is most concerned about the impact of drug laws on minorities and the poor.  “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” He added that he supports Colorado and Washington’s efforts to “go forward” with their efforts at legalization and decriminalization.

8. Malia’s career plans: Obama’s older daughter, Malia, wants to be a filmmaker.

9. Obama’s must-do listRemnick asked Obama about what he must get done before the end of 2016. He responded,”I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”

10. Iran: Remnick writes that Obama believes if the current diplomatic efforts with Iran prevail, it could bring a new stability to the region.  “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Obama said. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

11. SyriaObama said he feels confident that he has made the right decisions on Syria, although he confided, when prompted, that he is “haunted by what’s happened” there. But, he added, “It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.”

12. Drones: Obama also defended his strategy of using drones to kill terrorism suspects abroad, saying that his “preference” remains to capture and prosecute them, but if that proves infeasible, “I cannot stand by and do nothing.” He continued, “What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions. But it’s not perfect.”

13.  NSA/Snowden: Obama said he does not regard the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as comparable to the Pentagon Papers or other leaks vindicated by history.  Remnick writes: “The leaks, he said, had ‘put people at risk’ but revealed nothing illegal. And though the leaks raised ‘legitimate policy questions’ about N.S.A. operations, ‘the issue then is: Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?’”

14. Clemency for Snowden: Asked about the prospect of a deal with Snowden, Obama responded, “I do not have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden. This is an active case, where charges have been brought.”

15. How to address inequality: Although he is focused on inequality and economic opportunity, Obama recognizes he will have a limited capacity to address the issues. “The appetite for tax-and-transfer strategies, even among Democrats, much less among independents or Republicans, is probably somewhat limited.” Obama said. “Marshall Plan for the inner city is not going to get through Congress anytime soon.”

16. His key strength: Obama believes that his equanimity endures as one of his key strengths. “I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every president, like every person,” he said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin.”

17. A president’s limited power to change: Obama said that even the greatest presidents — like Abraham Lincoln — had to operate in the currents of history. “[D]espite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” Remnick concludes the story with Obama saying, “I just wanted to add one thing to that business about the great-man theory of history. The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing.” Obama then adds, “Not ‘probably’. It’s definitely a good thing.”

As should be apparent from the Title above, the item for consideration by this post is race.  The Post’s summary notes the President acknowledges that:

  • The color of his skin might have affected how some Americans perceive his Presidency
  • He does not think it has a major overall effect one way or the other
  • “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.”
  • “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

As is always the case, there are ready detractors to the President’s comments.  Howard Kurtz, writing for Fox News about the entire series of interviews asserts that the President provided the sense of a man who has abandoned what he once billed as the audacity of hope.

Further to the Right, Rush Limbaugh characterized the President’s remarks as derangement and delusion.  In fact, he referred to a specific excerpt:

  • “As Obama ticked off a list of first-term achievements — the economic rescue, the forty-four straight months of job growth, a reduction in carbon emissions, a spike in clean-energy technology — he seemed efficient but contained, running at three-quarters speed, like an athlete playing a midseason road game of modest consequence.”

“This is derangement and delusion – and the reporter, Remnick in this case, just eats it all up,” Rush said.

Limbaugh clarifies his position by arguing there has been no economic rescue, there have not been 44 months of job growth, there has been no reduction in carbon emissions, there has been no spike in clean energy technology; ergo, the President’s remarks are delusional, and Mr. Remnick, apparently an unwitting conspirator/accomplice.  In addition, Mr. Limbaugh suggested the President played the race card.

This last point, which is popular with the Right, and which was popular with them, even before the President weighed in on the matter, is but a straw man.  Nevertheless, the notion of the President playing the race card is at the heart of the matter I want most to address.  Remnick directly pushes back on the idea President Obama played the race card.  In fact, he argues flatly that the President did no such thing.

Here’s the deal.  The President has throughout his tenure, figuratively bent over backward and into pretzel shape, rather than attribute to negative racial attitudes, opposition to him or his policies.  Now there is no doubt that was smart, and courageous; it was even expedient.  However, it was neither straight forward, nor honest.

Beyond the limiting confines of another election, President Obama finally freely, and as usual, articulately spoke about one of America’s oldest and dirtiest little secrets; Race Matters.  In doing so, he demonstrated his genuine awareness that that knife cuts both ways.

I respect the President’s reticence in charging headlong into the issue of race relations.  He is after all, the President of all the people, not just black people.  The real issue is far deeper than the PresidencyDr. Cornel West wrote a book entitled Race Matters, published in 1994.  The book is an analysis of moral authority and racial debates concerning skin color in America.  Ninety-one years earlier, in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk, “This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.”

Well into the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, it is fair to say the color line is still a problem; Dr. Du Bois had no idea how prophetic his words were, nor for how long they would be apt.  Say whatever you like; “President Obama Speaks: Race Matters!”

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