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.
Without explicitly criticizing either Mr. Jealous or his organization, the president easily could declare: “I don’t think that most people who participate in the Tea Party movement are motivated by racism. I believe that the great majority are good citizens who are exercising their sacred birthright as Americans, providing a great example of civic engagement and activism. I know that the Tea Party people don’t agree with me on the issues, and they may even hate my guts because of some of the tough decisions I’ve had to make as president. But the problems we face are bigger than one man, or one party, or one political point of view. I’d like to see every American, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, white and black, rich and poor, just as motivated and determined and fired up as the Tea Party activists who come out to demonstrations and town halls, who contact their Congressmen, who work for candidates who want to change our country. In fact, talking back to the government when you think we’re going in the wrong direction isn’t just a right for Americans; it’s a responsibility.”
Can you imagine the reaction of the press and the public if President Obama responded to the slanders against his conservative critics with this sort of big-hearted defense of their motives and their right to dissent, while even praising their idealism? For the first time in his presidency, he might seem to deliver on his promises of a fresh sort of common ground politics, emphasizing shared values rather than polarizing partisan posturing.
Politically, an Obama defense of the Tea Party would cost him nothing while delivering big benefits. His liberal base would never desert him on this issue; even the embattled leaders of the NAACP could praise his healing, unifying leadership, particularly if it involved an invitation to a big White House meeting, a highly publicized “summit,” to sit down with some of the Constitutionalist protesters they’ve accused of racial bias. The president previously elevated a minor spat between a Cambridge police officer and a prominent professor of black history into a meaningless “beer summit” that provided little more than a fleeting photo op on the theme of reconciliation. A larger, much longer meeting between African American leaders and the most prominent Tea Party organizers could involve far more substantive conversation and the search for common ground. If nothing else, the conservatives in attendance could reaffirm their dedication to stand up against all hints of racism from their supporters, while the black leaders promised to avoid the temptation of treating every sort of criticism of their agenda as a sign of bigotry. The president could make clear that the profound economic challenges facing the country transcended all racial and ideological differences; it’s not just right wing true believers who feel anger and anxiety over soaring deficits that seem out of control, or a business system that looks like it’s lost its traditional resilience and vigor.
Most importantly, President Obama could show the country that he can, after all, accept disagreement and criticism without the immature instinct of blaming someone else – targeting his perennial whipping boy, George W. Bush, or greedy capitalists, or racist demagogues who oppose him simply because of his dark skin and Arabic middle name.
Why won’t the president make such an obviously promising and positive move, and disassociate himself from the strident and polarizing rhetoric at the NAACP convention – an event at which the First Lady herself gave a featured address? More and more observers of all political perspectives have come to recognize that Barack Obama won’t grab the chance for serious reconciliation because his deep-seated personal instincts push him the other way. For all his charm and self-assurance, there’s an unmistakable aspect of his character that’s brittle and insecure. He regularly attacks not just the judgment of his opponents but their motives, suggesting that Wall Street bankers or insurance company executives or Republican politicians care only about their selfish gain rather than the long-term interests of the country.
On one level, the president probably believes the notion that much of the personal animus against him stems from his status as our first non-white president – ignoring the fact that his WASP predecessors, Bush and Clinton, both provoked similar bitterness and hysteria and, in Clinton’s case, even inspired an impeachment crisis. After a year and a half in office, Barack Obama looks more and more like a perfect illustration of the “active-negative” personality type described by James David Barber in his classic 1973 book, THE PRESIDENTIAL CHARACTER. These driven, ambitious chief executives, usually the product of troubled childhoods like President Obama’s, feel so convinced of their own long-suffering righteousness that on the deepest level they view their opponents as not only misguided but evil. Some of the greatest train-wrecks in presidential history came from these stubborn, arrogant personalities (Wilson, Hoover, Johnson, Nixon, Carter) who couldn’t reconsider problematic policies or positions and turned their troubled presidencies into punishing scenarios of martyrdom.
At this difficult juncture, with a looming electoral disaster in November, it’s still not too late for Barack Obama to reboot and to reactivate his eloquent campaign promises to play a soothing, unifying role that transcended political and racial divisions. If he fails to take the chance to act as a fair-minded mediator in the nasty fight between the NAACP and the Tea Party it will send the worst possible message about the future of his presidency.