“The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being ‘clean’ (as Joe Biden once labeled him) and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches,” The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in an extended essay in the magazine this month.
Citing events of the last four years from the rise of the Tea Party to the reaction to Obama’ s comments on the Trayvon Martin case, Coates concludes “race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all of his politics.”
Is this true? One of the great and to some extent unanswerable questions of the last four years is the role race has played in Obama’s election and presidency. The incredible support he received among black voters in the Democratic primaries was one of most important reasons he won the Democratic nomination. In the general election, strong black support helped tip states like North Carolina to Obama’s win column.
Race also seems to have hurt him at times politically. In 2008, people in states like West Virginia who actually said race was a factor in their votes and favored Hillary Clinton kept the primaries going long after it was clear Obama would eventually win.
In the general election, Harvard doctoral candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has estimated Obama lost three to five points of the popular vote due to racism.
At the same time, it’s important not to attribute all of the events of the last four years to race. It seems entirely possible that large numbers of black voters would have supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 if she were the Democratic presidential nominee, the former First Lady would have won a landslide victory based on animus toward President Bush and the struggles of the economy and that conservatives would have organized an intense protest movement like the Tea Party if she passed a $800 billion stimulus bill and then pressed for a universal health care bill once in office.
Most Tea Party members, despite their claims of being new to politics and independent, have views on policy issues that closely mirror those of conservative Republicans. No liberal Democratic president, black or white, would have won the support of these activists. Obama’s dip in approval from 2008 to 2010 is less related to race than the recession and a natural migration of some independents back to the GOP. The 2000 and 2004 elections were extremely close, and 2012 will be as well. Obama’s huge win in 2008 was an outlier in a country that is essentially divided 50-50 between the two parties.
The clearest case is that Obama’s race has shaped the form and language used by both his supporters and opponents, if not the actual members of either group. More establishment Republicans have cast Obama as an outsider (the president has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” policy view, Newt Gingrich once said), while more extreme ones like Donald Trump suggest falsely he was not born in the United States. Obama allies, in turn, cast him as a transformational figure in part because of his race, and they frequently cast opponents as racist.
Because of Obama’s race, many, particularly blacks, were eager to hear the president’s thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case in a way they would not have desired to hear from Clinton or Joe Biden. It is no accident a proliferation of minority commentators on cable news networks has occurred during the rise of the black president, and this too has changed how political news is discussed.
Those changes almost certainly would not have happened in a Hillary Clinton presidency. So Coates is right that Obama’s blackness “touches” everything, but it is only a part of a much larger narrative of his presidency.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr