President Obama wanted to deliver a rebuttal.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award-winning writer at The Atlantic, had blasted the president for his graduation speech in May at Morehouse College, the all-male, historically black school in Atlanta that Martin Luther King Jr. attended. Coates wrote that the speech, which included the president telling the graduates “nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination,” was part of a regular Obama pattern: delivering preachy, sermon-like speeches to African-Americans audiences exhorting them to work harder and take more responsibility for their lives, while downplaying the role of racial discrimination in today’s America.
This rhetoric, according to Coates, fit a “discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk,” and blacks deserved more than Obama’s “targeted scorn.”
A few weeks after the piece was published, Obama aides invited Coates to a meeting with the president in the Roosevelt Room, along with several other writers. Obama regularly has off-the-record meetings with groups of journalists, particularly liberal columnists he considers influential. According to those who have attended them, the president uses the sessions to explain his views more fully, hoping to help shape the coverage of some of the country’s leading writers. In the sessions, Obama speaks at first, then each writer gets a chance to ask a question.
At one point during the meeting, Obama, according to two people who were familiar with this session, assured Coates he respects his writing. But Obama then bluntly told Coates that he felt the writer’s criticism of the Morehouse speech was off-base. Obama argued he understood the legacy of racism as much as anyone. But the president said that his rhetoric was not designed to attack the Morehouse graduates, but instead to underscore the challenges of life, particularly for African-Americans, once they left campus.
He added, for good measure, the graduates liked the speech just fine. (Coates did not return an e-mail seeking comment.)
What the president did not do was apologize for his remarks, which was a departure from his first term. Early in his presidency, when race came up, backtracking from Obama’s team often followed. No, Obama should not have said in 2009 that police “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates at his house. No, Obama’s attorney general and friend Eric Holder should not have described the U.S. as a “nation of cowards” unwilling to speak directly about race. No, the administration should not have fired Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod over a video that was edited by a conservative website to suggest she made racist comments. No, the president was not trying to attack members of the Congressional Black Caucus when he urged them to press forward and “stop complaining” in a 2011 speech.
While Obama was very skilled as a candidate in appealing to both black and non-black audiences, early in his presidency he and his team at times struggled with how an African-American president should speak and act on controversial issues that involved race.
But over the last few months, Obama’s administration, with little fanfare, has enacted a series of unabashedly liberal policies that the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have long urged. He is increasingly using his bully pulpit to talk about broader issues of race in America. Obama has elevated the role of Holder, once one of the administration’s most controversial figures, in announcing new policies on drug sentencing and other issues.
Some of these moves are controversial. Coates was not alone among blacks in disliking the Morehouse speech. Some conservatives, on the other hand, say Obama’s rhetoric, such as when he suggested “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” is inappropriate, and his policies are overly race-conscious.
But what’s different in his second term is that Obama is shaping these debates on his terms. He never intended his remarks on Gates to turn into a media firestorm that forced an awkward “beer summit” between the professor, the officer who arrested him, Obama and the vice-president.
But the president very intentionally arrived at the Morehouse’s campus that day to deliver a kind of sermon to the graduates.
“He was a little defensive”
In the early days of his tenure, Obama and other black leaders, both in Congress and those who worked at civil rights groups, had an uneasy relationship. The civil rights leaders, proud of Obama’s accomplishment in getting elected, were wary of criticizing him directly, in public or even in private. At the same time, some were frustrated by his approach.
In private meetings, some of the leaders, such as then-NAACP president Ben Jealous, urged Obama to offer specific plans that while not explicitly racial would direct additional federal funds toward communities with very high jobless rates, an approach that would have benefited blacks. The president would instead point to policies he had already enacted, like the economic stimulus plan, and describe how they helped African-Americans. And Obama rejected calls for him to speak or advocate policies that would specifically address high black unemployment, as opposed to ideas that would benefit jobless Americans of all races.
“The notion that he would be criticized by the civil rights community, he was a little defensive about that,” said one former senior adviser.
Obama and his team weren’t specifically against the ideas of black leaders, other liberal groups and their proposals were also being rejected back then. In much of the first term, the White House, with reelection always on its mind, wanted to focus on the middle class as much as possible. Many of Obama’s policies, such as the health care law, would benefit lower-income people, often disproportionately so. But the emphasis in Obama’s speeches about health care was on young adults being able to stay on their parents’ health care plans, not the vast expansion of Medicaid for poor Americans. When a group of Cabinet secretaries, early in the first term, suggested the administration launch a formal anti-poverty push, the proposal was quickly shot down.
“We tried as hard as we could not to talk about the increases in funding for food stamps and Medicaid,” in the 2009 stimulus bill, said one former senior White House official.
One former White House aide described how the administration was nervous each month in 2012 when the Department of Agriculture would announce how many Americans were on food stamps. The administration was deeply supportive of helping low-income Americans pay for food, but viewed the announcements as opportunity for Republicans to cast Obama as the “food stamp president.”
“More than any other human being I know”
Black leaders strongly backed Obama during the 2012 election. But they wanted to find a way to push the president toward their policy goals in a second term.
A group of 60 African-American leaders met privately in late 2012 in Washington to come up with a coordinated list of proposals that Obama should pursue, which they dubbed the “agenda for African-Americans.” They presented some of the ideas to Obama in a meeting with him last year and later wrote a formal document calling for policies like defending affirmative action, taking steps to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and reform the “war on drugs,” and fighting controversial voting laws passed in Republican-controlled states.
But the effort may not have been necessary: Obama was already there. He had proposed many of these ideas himself already, in a 2007 speech at Howard University. In meetings on the eve of the 2012 election with his staff, Obama told aides he wanted to work on these kinds of issues if he won a second term. And one of Obama’s advisers was passionate about criminal justice and ready to lead on them: Holder.