Even inside the White House, Holder is considered too political. "Holder substitutes his political judgment for his legal judgment, and his political judgment isn't very good," says an unnamed White House official, according to the Washington Post's David Ignatius.
Holder's remarks come at a convenient time. In a widely discussed New York Magazine essay, Jonathan Chait argues that race relations have gotten worse under Obama. Chait believes that liberals have become obsessed with conservative racism as the real explanation for everything Republicans do. Meanwhile, he says conservatives have cocooned themselves in a kind of righteous victimhood, where racism is a relevant issue only when conservatives are falsely accused of it. (It's a fair point that conservatives should be more conspicuously concerned about racism.)
It is an at times brave and insightful, if not uniformly persuasive, essay. The Holder episode casts light on one of his arguments. According to Chait, Obama has steadfastly refused to make race a national issue, even as the ugly racial conversation has raged. "In almost every instance when his blackness has come to the center of public events, however, [Obama] has refused to impute racism to his critics," Chait writes.
That's largely (though not entirely) true about what the president has said himself. But it is manifestly untrue about what he has allowed to be said on his behalf. He didn't mind the racial theater congressional Democrats put on when black congressmen marched through Tea Party protests to sign Obamacare. One of those congressmen, civil rights hero John Lewis, gave a stirring speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention and suggested that a vote for the GOP amounted to "going back" to Jim Crow.
Republican presidents are routinely expected to denounce outrageous comments by members of their own party, never mind members of their Cabinet. Not Obama. His feigned aloofness is his exoneration, even as racial politics get ever more poisonous, thanks in part to his whistling lap dog.