Barack Obama: The Great Divider

Even if Obama cannot solve America’s race problem, the power of the presidency ensures that he can make it worse. So far, he has.

Had the Obama years turned out differently, the President’s recent remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus might have been forgivable, or at least forgettable. “I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy,” he informed, if the African-American community “lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.” In the current climate, however, President Obama’s comments, whatever their impact on the November elections, are likely to aggravate race relations.

To appreciate the significance of Obama’s remarks, it bears mentioning Obama’s path to the presidency. In the forty years before Obama’s election, a succession of vice presidents and governors ascended to the Oval Office only after decades of scrutiny in the public arena.

Obama was judged by a different standard. The journey from Columbia University to Editor of the Harvard Law Review to an appointment on the University of Chicago faculty is typically littered with scholarly publications, clerkships and other professional accolades. In Obama’s case, the most conspicuous items on his resume were two autobiographies — both about his racial identity — and an unremarkable stint in Illinois politics.   

Yet it was on this basis that America gambled on Obama. What reason was there to catapult an anonymous state senator into the presidency within a span of four years?

Much of the rationale for Obama’s candidacy mirrored the arguments frequently proffered for affirmative action programs. The inclusion of minorities in our highest positions of power, we’re often told, will produce racial progress once minorities see that they have a place in American society, and once whites are persuaded that minorities can be integrated on equal terms.

Enter Obama. After a string of failed African-American candidates for President, Obama was the first who seemed to have the right temperament and intuitions. He inspired minorities without resorting to the crude racial politics of Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton. Yet he also offered a critique of race relations that appealed to white voters without the alienating conservatism of Alan Keyes.

It was Obama’s 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, in particular, that transformed him into a national figure. America was willing to tolerate the student councilish platitudes in the speech, for they had finally found an African-American leader committed to a benign vision of post-racialism. So enthralled were the American people that they even overlooked the inspiration behind the speech — Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s long-time former pastor. This was quite generous. Obama, after all, had disavowed Wright not after his anti-American and anti-Semitic sermons were leaked, but only after Wright’s incendiary interviews in the middle of the campaign became a liability.

Hope prevailed that the era of divisive racial politics were coming to an end. “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” Matt Bai asked in an August 2008 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Although a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bai reported, Obama “never felt he belonged.” The reason was that Obama was part of a new generation of African-American politicians — “he simply wasn’t comfortable categorizing his politics by race.” In light of Obama’s nomination, Bai ventured, black politics “might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.”

In November 2008, Bai’s report seemed prophetic. Never mind the feared “Bradley effect” – that voters would say one thing to pollsters and do another in the privacy of the voting booth. Obama outperformed John Kerry among the white vote, and, with overwhelming margins among African-Americans and Hispanics, delivered a landslide victory. The election of America’s “first black president” was celebrated as a sign that the country was overcoming its race problem.

Eight years later, precisely the opposite has happened.

Race relations have deteriorated to an unenviable place. In a July 2016 poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans agreed that race relations are generally bad – a level unseen since the 1992 Rodney King riots.