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Thursday, September 17, 2009

It Is Not Always About Racism With Obama Protesters

Former President Carter, when musing this week about the protests and on Congressman Wilson, said it was all about race. The White House quickly downplayed the charge. Who is right?

Race, to be sure, plays a part. How could it not? Barack Obama is the first non-white President of the United States of America. But how does one calibrate the degree to which racism affects the attitudes of the protesters? Yes, there are knuckleheads with racist signs and illogical claims of Kenyan birth, but they are in the minority. And it is probably unfair to paint all of them with the racist label.

Strategically, also, it is smart for the White House to downplay race. Barack Obama is the President of the United States. He will pick and choose his teachable moments regarding the subject of race. Just being President speaks volumes about race and the wisdom of the American people. Continually bringing up the subject, however, has the effect of blunting his effectiveness and even -- somewhat -- marginalizing him. The President knows he is the first African-American President, and if he forgets he has Valerie Jarrett to remind him.

People who charge that the protests are all about racism underestimate the fundamental economic changes we are undergoing. Not since the Great Depression has the United States been in such utter economic peril. Unemployment is about to top 10% (in many cities the average is already higher than that). Older voters, resistant to change, went in for Hillary and, afterwards, McCain. And the United States has a grand tradition -- since our revolution over two centuries ago from Mother England -- of distrust in government (even to a degree Hofstader famously observed as a "paranoid style"). It comes from our colonial beginnings. Add to the mix the unprecedented scale of the stimulus package and the changes in health care, and the relative closeness of the 2008 election (55.8 million people, or 45.6% of Americans, voted for McCain). Saying that all the protests are about race shows a spectacularly simplistic understanding of American politics. Salon also has an interesting article on the subject.

Those who underestimate the impact of the economy on the protests also fail to note the polarization that began during the Watergate era and reached its apex with Karl Rove/James Baker in Florida 2000 (and, arguably, Rove in Ohio in 2004). It is actually scary the intensity with which Republicans covet the White House, the ultimate prize. They almost believe that it is their possession. Ever since Nixon was unceremoniously ejected from office, many right-wingers have gone into battle mode, believing they were wronged. As a result, they have been particularly aggressive against any President who is not a Republican. That has nothing to do with race, rather it is a byproduct of the culture wars.

Would elements of the right-wing act the same way if the President were white? That is a question that has already been asked a thousand times and will likely be asked a thousand more. The askers, however, seem to forget that Bill Clinton, who was actually impeached for lying about something as trivial as sex, was white. Those who wonder if Congressman Wilson would have shouted "You Lie!" to a white President forget that Jesse Helms once joked that Bill Clinton might need literal protection from the military in North Carolina.

So was Jimmy Carter. There is perhaps no other living President treated with such contempt as Jimmy Carter. Yes, his one term Presidency was ineffective. But does he deserve the opprobrium?

Right-wing Republicans have mobilized a powerful, single-minded anti-Democrat machine. That organization and ideology is steeled by their perception of Watergate. They regard the Presidency as theirs and they are willing to do anything -- even impeaching a popular Democrat -- to keep it. They hit hard (gays in the military early under Clinton), and they hit strategically (impeachment, Gingrich's 104th Congress).

It is not all about race.

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