The NAACP’s intemperate denunciation of the Tea Party movement presents Barack Obama with a stunning and powerful opportunity; the fact that the president has so far refused to seize it reveals the sad limitations of his leadership.
Outsourcing this task to Vice President Biden (who denied the racist charges and said the president agreed with him during a weekend interview on ABC News) hardly makes up for the presidential silence.
However much mainstream media figures may admire the Veep, he lacks two crucial qualifications that Barack Obama would bring to any Tea Party defense: 1) He isn’t president of the United States and 2) He isn’t black.
In fact, with the debate about racism and conservative activists continuing to percolate, even a presidential statement by itself wouldn’t be enough. To maximize the political gain for himself and the cultural benefits for the nation at large, President Obama ought to reach out to his political enemies on the right, publicly acknowledge their good intentions, and call a White House “summit meeting” between leaders of the Tea Party and the NAACP. If he did so, his generous actions would confound his critics, make headlines around the world, and rekindle the flickering hope that Barack Obama could transcend the tired old politics of polarization.
Undoubtedly, some reporter will ask the president of the United States whether or not he agrees with the charges of racism against Tea Party activists. Though the final wording of the NAACP resolution on the subject won’t be decided till October, Ben Jealous, leader of the NAACP, has already described the populists who have re-energized the Republican Party as the “genetic descendants of the White Citizen Councils” and insisted that they deliberately seek to rip the country apart.