How race plays a role in Obama-Clinton health care reform dynamic

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Explaining the phenomenon of the “Explainer-in-Chief” might sound like a somewhat redundant enterprise, but the recent appearance of President Obama and former President Clinton to parse (and promote) the implementation of the marketplace/exchange phase of the Affordable Care Act provides a unique opportunity to counter the now typical revisionist histories that attach to presidents once they vacate the office.

After President Clinton’s 2012 convention speech, where he made a compelling case for re-electing President Obama, Obama himself began to jokingly refer to Clinton as his “Explainer-in-Chief,” a faux title that many in the media accepted as a jocular moniker without considering some of the more serious, less obvious implications of the idea that one of the most intelligent, rhetorically gifted presidents — maybe in history, but certainly in recent history — requires the explicative skills of his most recent politically aligned predecessor in order to communicate policy matters in a manner that is effective for the American public.

The current public and political love affair with former President Clinton obscures deeper issues about this country’s tentative acceptance of its first black president; the cross-racial communicative capabilities of this (current) president; and our nation’s penchant for nostalgically rehabilitating and revising the histories of presidents past.

Some of us who lived through Reaganomics and his implementation of a neo-liberal ideological agenda that continues to dog American politics and policy to this day are stunned by assertions that Ronald Reagan was America’s greatest president.  That President Obama feeds into some of this Reaganist revisionism does not bode well for the future of historical accuracy regarding his own presidency.

The economic boom during Clinton’s tenure so often cited also featured the dot-com boom and bust, the deregulation that underwrote the economic dominance of the 1 percent, the expansion and creation of deliberate incentives for the Prison Industrial Complex, and the gutting of the social safety net also known as “welfare reform.” All of these have exacerbated the conditions of those who live in and through poverty in America.

Clinton’s presidency in many ways represents the Democratic Party’s capitulation to the economic strategies of the conservative Right, an unabashed move to the center from which the Democratic party and and traditional Democratic policies have never fully returned.

As much as progressives have to continue to pull/push President Obama to address the structural needs of the poverty and middle classes in America, the Affordable Care Act is a policy achievement worth acknowledging.  It will go down in American history as the beginning of universal healthcare in this nation – where it is long overdue.  The idea that Obama’s predecessor has more cache with working class whites, or more political ability, or more cache with the donor class and/or the political class, all seem to make more sense if we acknowledge the very real fact that effective communication itself is directly informed by race.

Studies in health care (ironically) bear this out.  People’s perceptions of their experiences with health care providers are shaped by the race, ethnicity, and gender of the provider.  It stands to reason then, that one of the most important abilities of America’s “Explainer-In-Chief” is his ability to be a white man.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip-Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson