The lie that won't die: Obama and the Black Panthers

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Here they go again. Campaign season is upon us, and the fringe right — in an attempt to change the subject and divert attention from the economy and the president’s jobs plan — is trying to make Obama into the black bogeyman once again. But in their efforts to turn Obama into a wide-eyed radical, they should be careful of what they ask for.

Specifically, Andrew Breitbart wants white Americans to be scared of the president, so he is peddling a manufactured story linking Obama with the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). During the 2008, rumors spread that the Obama camp had posted an endorsement from NBPP on its website.

What really happened is that in 2007, members of the NBPP “photobombed” then-presidential candidate Obama (that is, dropped in the picture at the last minute) at a commemorative march in Selma, Alabama. Obama was marching with people such as civil rights icon Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to mark the 42nd anniversary of the 1965 march from Selma, when marchers were brutally attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The New Black Panthers were the target of the highly politicized Bush Justice Department, amidst flimsy charges that members of the group intimidated white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in 2008. The manufactured case against the NBPP fit into the Karl Rove narrative of rampant voter fraud in black, Latino and Democratic-leaning communities, and voter intimidation and reverse discrimination against whites. When U.S. Attorneys refused to prosecute such cases for lack of evidence, eight of the prosecutors were summarily fired.

By conflating the New Black Panther Party with the original Black Panthers, the hard right seeks to defame and trivialize an important part of the civil rights movement. The Black Panthers of the 60s and 70s — who have distanced themselves from the NBPP and used them over the use of their name — wanted full employment, decent housing and education, an end to economic oppression, free health care, and an end to wars of aggression.

And since he became a candidate for president the last time around, the extreme right has attempted to link Barack Obama to radical groups. It was the same race-baiting Southern Strategy that the GOP strategists employed in presidential elections since the 1960s, with the added bonus that the presidential candidate actually was black this time around.

Sarah Palin accused Obama of palling around with “terrorists” such as 1960s Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, a retired university professor who, along with Obama, sat on the board of a nonprofit organization.

Simultaneously, Obama has been painted as a black radical with a black Christian pastor and mentor who hates America, a Muslim terrorist with a Kenyan birth certificate, a socialist, communist and a fascist. First lady Michelle Obama has also had her patriotism questioned. And a Fox News anchor even accused her of giving her husband a “terrorist” fist bump.

So now, bereft of any ideas outside of ruining the economy and the president for political gain, the bottom feeders of ultra-right wing media are once again beating the dead horse of Obama-as-black-radical. They can’t use the n-word — unless it involves a discussion of Rick Perry’s family hunting camp—so this is all they have.Given Breitbart’s infamous role in the tarring and feathering of former USDA official Shirley Sherrod via a doctored video of a speech — and his promotion of a fraudulent ACORN “pimp” video which led to that community group’s demise— it defies explanation that he is still up to his dirty tricks.

Under normal circumstances, Breitbart’s ongoing conduct would pass for the journalistic version of malpractice, except that he is by no means a journalist. Rather, such individuals are propagandists — media con artists, hit men and bomb throwers. They simply make up stuff in the hopes that some of it will stick and damage a politician’s reputation.

Rather than do something constructive, such as report on growing economic inequality in America, the greed and corruption in the financial sector and the Occupy Wall Street movement, media outlets such as Fox News instead reject the Wall Street protesters as dirty and useless. Blind, tone deaf and oblivious to the high levels of discontent among the legions of ordinary working and unemployed folks, they just don’t get it. Glenn Beck dismissed them as mindless zombies, and Ann Coulter characterized the peaceful demonstrators as Nazis and the beginnings of totalitarianism.

Meanwhile, conservative politicos are attacking Obama as a purveyor in class warfare, all because of his tax plan that asks the wealthy to pay more, which amounts to as much as everyone else. His proposed “Buffett Rule” (as in Warren Buffett) would reduce the deficit by $3 trillion through a $1.5 trillion tax hike for the wealthy. Polls show a large majority of Americans supporting higher taxes for the rich and corporations, including a majority of Republicans and independents, and most of the affluent.

“I know a lot of folks have short memories, but I don’t remember Republicans accusing Ronald Reagan of being a socialist or engaging in class warfare because he thought everybody should do their fair share. Things have just gotten out of whack,” Obama said.

At first glance, painting the president as a rabble-rousing lefty may sound like a slam-dunk strategy for Obama’s Republican adversaries. Yet, there is a risk to this tactic. An opposing viewpoint would suggest that such a move is made to order for President Obama. Remember, this president is at his best when in campaign mode. Further, he is eager to differentiate himself from the GOP, whether the field of presidential candidates, or a Republican-led Congress suffering from rock bottom approval ratings.

The Republicans are misreading the political climate in the land. Accusing the president of class warfare, the GOP positions itself on the side of Wall Street bankers and the obscenely large bonuses they do not deserve — an unpopular position these days. Everyday people know that Obama did not bring the class warfare. Rather, the war has been waged on middle- and working-class Americans for a number of decades.

Moreover, this president is now about the tough task of rebuilding the base, of energizing and engaging his supporters after a series of missteps over the past three years. The base criticized Obama for not going to the mat on a public option or single-payer health insurance system.

In addition, he was slow to act on the jobs crisis, particularly the epidemic of black unemployment. The president was accused of valuing the counsel of Ivy League-trained Wall Street insiders who did not have his back, and either disobeyed or ignored his orders to reform the financial system.

Most of all, for far too long President Obama behaved as if the fight wasn’t in him. He wasted too much time, in vain, trying to placate and accommodate Republicans who would have none of it. After all, his adversaries were playing hardball politics, winner take all. Their only goal has been to make Obama a one-term president. Obama came to the table not as a strong Commander-in-Chief, a tough negotiator armed with an electoral mandate, but as team leader in Poli Sci 101 class.

In other words, the people who voted for Obama are looking for a backbone from this president, and now they’re getting it. For the Republicans to cloak this president in the mantle of class warfare and radical socialism is only to embolden him. This is what the voters want. The economy is wreaking havoc on millions who are angry at the Wall Street banks. Further, the public is fed up with the dysfunction of a system of government that seems unable or unwilling to take care of its people.

Obama was given a choice — ride the wave of populist anger over the economy and harness it, or continue to appear oblivious and allow it to consume him. Be a Democrat and have a fighting chance, or be a Republican-lite and lose.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the ire of his enemies over seven decades ago, as should Obama. As F.D.R. said on the eve of the 1936 election, in words that are just as relevant today, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Here is the clincher: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

If the Republicans enable this president by labeling him a radical rabble-rouser, they run the risk of overreach. But then again, it would not be the first time.