Princeton University professor Cornel West’s silly, shoot-from-the-lip slur against President Barack Obama as a “black puppet” predictably got the headline that he knew it would for two reasons.
The first is that the slur didn’t originate from the usual suspects of professional Obama baiters. It didn’t come from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachman — Tea Party leaders and activists and the shrill pack of right-wing talk show jocks, bloggers and websites.
It came from West, a media-genic, leftist black academic. Though, even that might not have drawn mention since West has repeatedly hectored and harangued Obama as a sell-out to corporate interests and for allegedly saying and doing nothing to alleviate black suffering.
The strong language West used in calling Obama a “black puppet” could have easily 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.
The question then is whether the president’s approval ratings dropped among blacks because of the disaffection, unease and impatience that an increasing number of blacks feel toward Obama. Probably. The chill toward Obama is perhaps based on a grossly inflated, wildly unrealistic expectation of what Obama could and can do in the White House.
The Congressional Black Caucus was the first to signal impatience with Obama last year after they publicly demanded that he spend more money and initiate special programs to reduce the nearly 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 nearly 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, Ill. 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.
Even afterwards the choice was apparent. The month after he got in the White House, Obama mildly chided the first black 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, 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 and the appointments of legions of African Americans to agency and sub-cabinet posts have been Obama’s way of dealing 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 like a hawk 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 typecast 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, conciliations, give and takes, 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 best presidents. Calling Obama a “black puppet” says more about the name-caller than the president, but it still got the predictable headline.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and associate editor of New America Media.