Whenever race is mentioned, it hurts Barack Obama's presidency. The very basis of his presidency is that he is the post-racial president. Now he finds himself knee-deep into racial politics.
Some is of his own doing. In suing Arizona over immigration reform, he takes a step that alienates the three-quarters of Anglo voters who back the law. In refusing to prosecute the New Black Panthers for their blatant intimidation of white voters in 2008, he alienates fair-thinking people of both races. But in firing Shirley Sherrod, he showed African-Americans that he was caving in to pressure from Fox News and the conservatives. Then, by reversing field and reinstating her, the president and his agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, show whites and Republicans-independent voters that he is caving in to pressure from the African-American community.
There are two common denominators to this equation: race and weakness. Any involvement in racial politics has to hurt Obama at his core. It goes to his fundamental selling point: that he is post racial. By dealing with race repeatedly, he is vulnerable just as Bill Clinton was when he always had to deal with sexual scandal. It is not his strength but can ultimately destroy his credibility.
And then there is weakness. By caving in first to the right and then to the left, Obama acts and looks indecisive and weak. He comes across as out of control and projects the same image of incapacity and chaos that he so amply demonstrated when the oil was gushing in the gulf. He reminds one of the opening days of the Clinton adminsitration, when it tied itself in knots over the issue of gays in the military. It looks like amateur hour at the White House.
Obama has two conflicting goals: He wants to expand his base among whites and heighten enthusiasm of blacks. Good goals, both. But if he uses racial issues to accomplish either objective -- as he appears to do in the Sherrod controversy -- he alienates one group in order to win the other. Not a good strategy.
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