On January 7th, 2008, at the start of the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton sat down to an interview with then-Fox News correspondent Major Garrett. He read her a quote from a speech by then candidate Barack Obama about how Martin Luther King inspired Americans to not give up hope, no matter how grand the dream. Hillary’s response was telling:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Clinton said. “It took a president to get it done.”
She was suggesting, not so subtly, that Obama’s campaign idealism would not be realized without a hard-nosed (white) leader like her in office. At the time her comments were seen as arrogant and racially pessimistic, but 5 years later, mere months into the second term of the Obama presidency it might be time to re-evaluate Clinton’s words. Will it take a white president to see Obama’s dreams for America come to fruition? All evidence now points to yes.
Once upon a time, back in 2008, an African-American president was a pipe dream. Pundits were convinced that “Billary Clinton” (former FLOTUS Hillary and husband Bill) would sweep the Democratic primaries, and crush whatever Republican was foolish enough to challenge her in the general. Then along came the optimistic, charismatic freshman Senator Barack Obama promising Hope in America and Change in Washington. He beat Hillary, smashed McCain/Palin and was elected president, tacitly promising America a post-racial future.
‘Rookie’ mistakes mark Obama presidency
Political scientists and pollsters knew from day one that Obama’s race would be a factor in his success or failure as president; it’s just that nobody really knew how much of a factor it would play. Would the nation’s challenges; the recession, mid-east wars and healthcare be enough for prejudiced whites in Congress and D.C. to look past race and do what’s best for the country? Which would be a bigger challenge, Obama’s relative inexperience in Washington or entrenched racial attitudes and D.C politicking? It didn’t take that long to find out.
Obama has made a slew of “rookie” mistakes in his presidency, like his messaging on health care, poor negotiating on the debate ceiling and disturbing double speak on civil liberties. However the reactions to his mistakes and his very presidency from Republicans have always been above and beyond anything his behavior has warranted. From screaming Joe Wilson to birthers to fringe Tea Party groups, there always seems to be a racial undercurrent to Obama’s opposition in Washington.
In Obama’s first term this could be chalked up to Republicans trying to make sure Obama didn’t get re-elected, and Democrats nervous about a replay of the 2010 mid-terms. But now, just a few months after the 2012 elections, we’ve reached a tipping point where it’s clear nothing of substance from the Obama agenda will get passed. Despite support in the polls in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Aurora mass shootings, Obama couldn’t get the Senate to even debate gun control.
Prejudice not politics at play
Studies show that no matter what Obama proposes, Republicans will reject it (even when it was their idea to begin with). But when safe Senate Democrats not up for re-election won’t back a president who just dragged them kicking and screaming into another majority grumble that Obama is “asking for too much,” something else must be going on.
It’s clear now that Congressional responses to Obama’s policies seem to have less to do with policy, principle, personality and polls and more to do with plain ole’ prejudice. Which brings us back to what Hillary was alluding to way back in 2008. While voters were ready for a black president, the powers that be in Washington may not be.
This is not to suggest that Obama hasn’t made mistakes or that Hillary Clinton would’ve done a better job (if she couldn’t win over her own party I doubt she could woo the GOP) but my guess is that a white Obama wouldn’t face nearly as much trouble with his agenda as the current one. America faces serious problems that President Obama’s agenda would finally address; the problem is it’s nigh impossible that a black man with that agenda could be successful in today’s Washington D.C.
A white Obama wouldn’t have given rise to the Tea Party, a white Obama from the Midwest could’ve easily rallied support from working class whites for an infrastructure jobs bill, white Obama could hang out with Jay-Z and Beyoncé and the press would eat it up. In other words, you could wrap up every idea from Barack Obama into a white Obama package and the Democrats would get all of the policies and none of the messy racial aftertaste.
Obama, always the racial optimist, will tell his supporters to not give up hope just yet, that he can still close Guantanamo Bay, restore civil liberties and fine tune Obamacare — but I wouldn’t hold my breath. None of the wheels of power available to previous presidents seem to turn as easily for Obama and he cannot magically change bigots and conservatives into good-faith negotiators while America suffers.
So in the end, Hillary was right; she has as good a chance as anybody in 2016 to be the LBJ to Obama’s Martin Luther King (or Kennedy). She can become president and fulfill the unrealized dreams of Obama whose skin color, but not ideals, were way ahead of their time. The changes he promised in 2008 will come, it just won’t be Obama behind them, it’ll be a white person.
And while that certainly won’t be the change many believed in it looks like it’s probably the best we can hope for.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell” He is a political analyst for CNN, HLN and Al Jazeera. Follow him @Drjasonjohnson and www.drjasonjohnson.com