By Kenneth T. Walsh
African-Americans have been an integral part of the White House since it was built in part by slaves. InFamily of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House, veteran U.S. News White House reporter Kenneth T. Walsh traces this sometimes fraught history from its roots all the way to the Barack Obama presidency.
As he began his second year in office, Obama’s presidency was not going well. His legislation to overhaul the healthcare system was still bogged down in Congress. The unemployment rate, which polls showed was the top concern of most Americans, remained stubbornly high at about 10 percent, and much worse in many African-American communities. Obama’s job-approval ratings had dropped markedly from the astronomical levels of his first few months to below 50 percent.
Adding to his woes, in January 2010 the race issue erupted again in an unusual and unexpected way. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader and an Obama ally, was embarrassed because of some racially insensitive comments he had made to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of a new book, Game Change, about the Obama campaign. It turned out that Reid had predicted in 2008 that Obama could succeed as an African-American presidential candidate partly because he was “light-skinned” and because he didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect.”
Reid quickly apologized, and many black leaders, including the president and Attorney General Eric Holder, defended him as a decent man who was not a racist. But Republicans tried to score political points, with party chairman Michael Steele and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calling on Reid to resign as majority leader. He refused, but the furor showed how race remained just below the surface of American life. Racial polarization was again on the rise. In January 2010, 96 percent of African-Americans approved Obama’s job performance, virtually unchanged from his 100-day mark in April 2009. But whites were losing faith in him, with only 44 percent approving his job performance, compared with 62 percent the previous April, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in January 2010.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said, “I don’t think you can find a guy who’s done more to try to put this issue [of race] off the table.” But McInturff added, “I don’t think the press really understands how difficult this guy’s position is” because his support among whites was so “precarious.” This was largely because the economy was in such distress, and most whites, except perhaps for young people, didn’t have a close bond with Obama to begin with.
African-Americans’ views on achieving racial equality also were growing more negative, even though black voters remained in strong support of Obama. According to McInturff, only 11 percent of blacks said that African-Americans had reached racial equality, down by 9 percentage points in one year, and 32 percent said equality would not be attained in their lifetimes, up by 9 points. Four in ten whites said African-Americans already had reached racial equality, while 31 percent said it would happen soon.
Obama addressed this pessimism among blacks in an address at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington on January 17, 2010, to mark the holiday devoted to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Calling for patience and pragmatism, the president said, “Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don’t want to see that even if we don’t get everything, we’re getting something. King understood that the desegregation of the armed forces didn’t end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn’t sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home. But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the armed forces. . . . ‘Let’s take a victory,’ he said, ‘and then keep on marching.'”
On March 12, 2010, President Obama welcomed me into the Oval Office for an interview for this book. Dressed in an elegant dark blue business suit and tie with an American flag pin in his left lapel, he was serene and confident. Behind him was the portrait of George Washington that has hung in the Oval Office for many years. Flanking that portrait were two busts added by Obama, reflecting his own values and heroes-behind him on his right was a likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., and on his left was one of Abraham Lincoln.
Obama was in a reflective mood. He began the interview by saying he had been “fully briefed” on my topic and was ready for me to “dive in.” He proceeded to methodically defend his effort to build a race-neutral administration. “Americans, since the victories of the civil rights movement, I think, have broadly come to accept the notion that everybody has to be treated equally; everybody has to be treated fairly,” the president told me. “And I think that the whole debate about how do you make up for past history creates a complicated wrinkle in that principle of equality.”
Calmly, candidly, and with typical intellectual precision, Obama gave one of his most extensive analyses of the country’s racial situation and his goals for improving it. He made clear that he was president of all Americans, not just of African-Americans, and didn’t want to be thought of only as a black president, even though he acknowledged that the country had been extremely proud in November 2008 when a majority of voters made history by electing him. He said he wasn’t sure how many Americans still saw him “through the lens of race,” although he acknowledged that, within the black community, “there is a great pride that’s undeniable,” and many African-American children “may feel a special affinity to me as a role model.” He compared all this with Irish-Catholic Americans who felt enormous pride in John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Irish-Catholic president in 1960.
I asked him if he was very conscious of his own race as he conducted the business of the presidency, and his answer was insightful. “You just don’t think about it, you really don’t,” he replied. “You’ve got too many other things to worry about.”
I asked him how much he felt an obligation or responsibility as the first African-American president to advance racial justice and make up for some of the past disparities between blacks and whites. He replied, “Well, I think that every president should feel an obligation to deal with not only issues of discrimination, but also the legacy of slavery and segregation that has been such a profound part of our history. You know, obviously it’s hard for me to engage in a mind experiment and say, well, if I weren’t African-American, would I feel less strongly about it or more strongly about it-and I know I feel strongly about it. I do come to this issue with personal experiences that are unlike any previous presidents’.
“But I also think that anybody in this office who cares deeply about the future of the country would be looking and saying to themselves, the population is changing; the future workforce is going to have a lot more African-American and Latino and Asian workers. And if those populations don’t feel fully assimilated into the culture, aren’t performing at high levels educationally, are caught in cycles of poverty-that that’s not good for America’s future. And that’s certainly how I feel-and I would like to think that any president would feel that way.”
There were many effects stemming from Obama’s presidency, both those that were expected and those that were not. One was a surprising surge in the number of black Republican candidates in the midterm elections of November 2010. At least 32 African-Americans were running for Congress as Republicans . . . the largest number since Reconstruction, according to The New York Times. The last time there was a black Republican serving in the House was 2003, when J. C. Watts of Oklahoma left office after eight years. The New York Times found that “many of the candidates suggest that they felt empowered by Mr. Obama’s election, that it made them realize that what had once seemed impossible-for a black candidate to win election with substantial white support-was not.” The states where these candidates were running included Arkansas, Arizona, and Florida.
[Top aide] Valerie Jarrett told me, “I think at the time of his victory, there was an enormous amount of historical significance to this country being able to elect a person who was African-American as president. I think that there are probably people who still see him as an African-American president favorably and unfavorably. But the vast majority of people, I think, see him as their president. I think that because he inherited such a crisis on all fronts-two wars, an economic meltdown, a fiscal meltdown, the largest deficit in our nation’s history, and a health crisis, energy crisis, education crisis, confidence crisis around the world-because of this extraordinary moment in history when he stepped in, I don’t think there has been a lot of time to focus on his race. People just want to know, ‘Are you going to be able to improve the quality of my life?'”
But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent “Tea Party” movement that was then surging across the country. Many middle-class and working-class whites felt aggrieved and resentful that the federal government was helping other groups, including bankers, automakers, irresponsible people who had defaulted on their mortgages, and the poor, but wasn’t helping them nearly enough, he said.
A guest suggested that when Tea Party activists said they wanted to “take back” their country, their real motivation was to stir up anger and anxiety at having a black president, and Obama didn’t dispute the idea. He agreed that there was a “subterranean agenda” in the anti-Obama movement-a racially biased one-that was unfortunate. But he sadly conceded that there was little he could do about it.
His goal, he said, was to be as effective and empathetic a president as possible for all Americans. If he could accomplish that, it would advance racial progress for blacks more than anything else he could do.