President Obama: The Black President Rather Than The American President Who Happens To Be Black

Lynn Sweet’s question about the Henry Gate’s arrest (white officers arrested a black Harvard scholar breaking into his own home) at the press conference seemed coordinated and purposeful and at first glance, strange. The press conference was regarding nationalized health care, why would a reporter talk about the Henry Gate’s arrest? As Yuri says over at the National Review, normally, a president would say:

It’s the kind of question to which a president would normally reply with something like: “That’s a local police matter, I don’t know the details and I know it will be worked out responsibly,” and move along. Obama gave a lengthy review of the facts, called the police officers involved stupid, and implied they are also liars. Very odd behavior for a president.

My take was that President Obama wanted to talk about race in a grand way. He wanted to remind the country that his presidency was historic and historic changes (i.e. health care legislation that is a human right like racial equality is a human right) needed to happen for a historic time. While I believe the president choosing to talk about this was an error in judgment, I certainly don’t believe the topic was accidental or a simple “gaffe”.

The Politico’s Ben Smith sees a pattern but I think he missed the big idea that Obama was trying to convey:

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His dryness was all the more striking by contrast with the press conference’s conclusion, when he suddenly re-engaged with a question that he’s spent much of his life mulling — race, in the form of the arrest of a black Harvard professor.

The appearance was striking by its absence of a move that’s long characterized Obama’s political career: When in trouble, go big. Faced with a crisis of confidence or with a political furor, he’s repeatedly shown an ability to rise above the storm and to broaden the playing field, as when he turned a flap over his pastor into a meditation on race in America.

Now, facing his hardest test as president, Obama chose to go small.

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President Obama intended for this last question to be big and general and capture a huge theme. I’m quite sure the president wanted to start a discussion of race. I’m quite sure President Obama is furious about what he perceives as systemic injustice–both with regards to race and to health care.

Americans are not fully realized. Fully realized and civilized people recognize that socialized health care is a right, just as fully realized and civilized people recognize that all people are equal regardless of skin color. He’s making the juxtaposition but it was an oblique one because most people don’t view health care as a birth right. They view it as a benefit. They view health care as a pain to deal with that needs to be fixed–not some grand human rights issue.

President Obama also took the opportunity to focus on race specifically before knowing the facts. Clearly, he was affronted by what he perceived was a wrong that happened to his friend. Evidently, he hadn’t read the police report now scrubbed from the Boston Globe. It seemed a strange diversion at the end of a health care conversation to be talking about race, but for another professor, it was a teaching moment.

When all the facts are revealed, the event could well be a racially-motivated. Moe Lane comments:

But the encounter is anything but over. Some of Gates’s outraged colleagues said the run-in proves that even in a liberal enclave like Harvard Square, even with someone of Gates’s accomplishments, a black man is a suspect before he is a resident.

Bolding mine, and there to highlight my sardonic observation: what do you mean, “even?” Not to be rude about it, but there ain’t no racist like a Bostonian racist*. Which is not necessarily a knock on the cop; it’s a knock on the neighbor who called the cops on Prof. Gates in the first place.

Does racism exist? Yes. Does elitism exist? Yes. (As in, “Do you know who I AM?!”)

But that all didn’t seem to be the point of President Obama’s answer. It was a broader answer,”We have lots of work to do.” That is, America is still rather a stupid place that needs to be made better by smart people. And when the smart people are listened to, racism will magically go away and health care will be perceived as a civil right and America will finally be a place to believe in.

The unintended consequence of the President’s answer to the question was that he framed himself as the black man who is President rather than the President who happens to be black, talking about health care. He started the press conference saying, “this isn’t about me” and in the end, made it all about him. And worse, made it, again, about how America is a bad place for men like him.

Cross-posted at

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