A new Obama emerges on race in second term

Opinion

President Barack Obama speaks at an event at Lackawanna College on August 23, 2013 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Obama is on his second day of a bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania to discuss his plan to make college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama speaks at an event at Lackawanna College on August 23, 2013 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Obama is on his second day of a bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania to discuss his plan to make college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Last fall, even before President Obama won re-election, he was meeting with top advisers to craft his agenda for a second term. One conclusion, according to aides who attended the sessions, was that a second-term president could speak more openly about some of the issues that had animated Obama’s career before he reached the White House, particularly questions of class and inequality.

Obama did not want to turn his presidency into one focused on his race, but would feel more comfortable engaging cultural issues that were broader than just policy concerns like health care and the economy that had dominated his first four years.

As he will make remarks Wednesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, this second-term Obama has now emerged in full. In his first four years, the president’s invocations of race and inequality, particularly after his 2009 remarks about Henry Louis Gates, Jr. turned into a media firestorm, were safe (such as talking about black fatherhood), brief and often understated.

Now, with his re-election behind him, the president, in both private and public settings, is more willing to have blunt, extended conversations about race, income inequality and poverty and to emphasize how his policies won’t just help the middle class, but also those struggling economically, a group that is disproportionately black.

To be sure, it wasn’t as if Obama somehow ignored the fact that he was the first black president in his four years in office. He famously declared in 2012, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” But his comments that day were about a minute long; he spoke for 18 minutes in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal last month, expressing a number of deeply personal thoughts he had not pre-vetted with aides.

In that speech, the president talked about the need to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys,” an effort he is expected to detail in the coming weeks.

His administration, through the Justice Department, is pushing a series of initiatives that are on the wish list of civil rights leaders: reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes that disproportionately affect blacks, fighting controversial voter laws in the South, trying to craft a new Voting Rights Act.

In a move that is unlikely to have been made in Obama’s first term, Attorney General Eric Holder has invoked a controversial and some say dubious legal theory, using Sections 2 and 3 of the VRA, to block a redistricting plan and voter ID law in Texas.

Michelle Obama, who seemed determined to say little controversial or personal in the first term, declared in April,  “Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was her.” Holder, who some top Obama aides wanted to leave as far back as 2010, has been allowed by Obama not only to remain in his post, but speak in the kind of blunt tones about race that often go well beyond whatever the president says.

Obama aides argue the president’s invocations of race and class are less about the first term versus the second term and more about the president, particularly after the Zimmerman verdict, finding ideal situations to bring forth his views. Privately, they say the lesson from the Gates’ experience was not to avoid discussions of race by Obama, but make sure the president avoided controversial, impolitic statements.

“The president can’t worry about a backlash if he thinks he can add value, I think when he spoke after the verdict in the Zimmerman case, he was trying to provide value,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top advisers, at an event at the White House on Tuesday.