Friday, November 14, 2008

Obama’s Racial Balancing Act

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President elect Barack Obama’s close and long time confidant Valerie Jarrett was emphatic when she told a group of black journalists that Obama would not waver one bit in his commitment to diversity in his administration. The journalists were nervous at the paucity of African-American names that have been repeatedly tossed around as likely Obama staff and cabinet picks. The list is top heavy with moderate to conservative Wall Street bank and corporate officials, ex-Clinton White House staffers, officials and advisors, and Democratic governors and senators. Though Obama has made no actual decisions whether any of them will make the final team cut, it was still cause for worry. The names prominently mentioned are hardly anyone’s definition of diversity. The political logic is that with the colossal problems of the war and the economy, an inexperienced and untested president who’s already under an intense microscope, virtually dictate that Obama can’t hit the ground running without the old, experienced corporate and Democratric insider hands on his team.

This will do nothing to ease the worry that blacks could be left out. And that’s a legitimate worry. The hard political reality is that black voters gave Obama more votes than any other Democratic candidate in presidential history. He could not have won solely with their record turnout and vote. But without those record votes he would almost certainly have lost. As in politics, there’s always a price or at least an expectation from an interest group that gives a candidate near universal backing. In this case, the implicit expectation is that an Obama White House will fight hard for civil rights, health, education, and job creation programs, and criminal justice reform. In fact, Obama hadn’t even warmed the president elect seat when Al Sharpton urged him to have his Attorney General revisit the Sean Bell case. The next day a coalition of national Latino legal and civil rights groups demanded that Obama appoint more Latinos to key posts in the cabinet, staff, and in the judiciary. More groups will almost certainly follow suit with their interest demands.

But even if Obama were not faced with towering crisises that have nothing to do with race, ethnicity and special interest demands, he still would hew tightly to a moderate centrist path in his staff and cabinet picks. The tipoff of that was his campaign. There was, and could not have been, the slightest racial or confrontational edge to it. That was absolutely crucial to win over doubting centrist, and conservative independents. In the early stages of the campaign they leaned tenuously to McCain. But Obama’s pitch that he’d put priority emphasis on tax and economic aid to the middle-class proved decisive in tipping the vote scale in his favor.

This was no accident. Though Obama publicly distanced himself from Bill Clinton's conservative Democratic Leadership Council. He still hewed closely to the template that Clinton and the DLC laid out for Democrats to win elections.

That is talk of strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, tax reform, a tame plan for affordable health care and the sub-prime lending crisis, and the economic resuscitation of mid-America. This non-racial, centrist pitch does not threaten or alienate the white middle-class. Meanwhile, Obama was virtually silent on issues such as racial profiling, affirmative action, housing and job discrimination, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, failing inner city schools, ending the racially-marred drug sentencing policy, and his Supreme Court appointments.

There were two other reasons for this formula approach apart from the heavy risk that making these centerpiece issues in the general election could have been the political kiss of death for him. One, is that his two Democratic presidential predecessors Al Gore and John Kerry also avoided talk of these issues during most of their campaigns. They, like Obama, are moderate, centrist Democrats. They were deeply fearful that a too heavy emphasis on civil rights and social programs would have left them wide open to assault from Bush and the GOP independent committees as too liberal Democrats, who were tax and spend, and soft on welfare and crime. That’s the standard tag, or better yet smear, plastered on Democrats. It’s their curse. Though both Gore and Kerry lost to Bush. They didn’t lose by much. In fact Gore won the popular vote. The lesson was that even in a loss, steering a center course was the prudent way for Democrats to keep the race close enough to have a shot at winning.

Obama even more than Kerry and Gore could not depart from the Clinton formula. Race made sure of that. From day one of his campaign he was and would be the most watched and scrutinized, and at times assailed, presidential candidate in modern times.

Jarrett’s emphastic assurance that diversity will be the watchword in an Obama House was honest and heartfelt. But politics being politics, diversity will be more a balancing act than the watchword on Obama’s watch.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)