According to Maureen Dowd, Barack Obama's latest problem may be because he isn't black enough:
The Obama White House is too white.
It has Barack Obama, raised in the Hawaiian hood and Indonesia, and Valerie Jarrett, who spent her early years in Iran.
But unlike Bill Clinton, who never needed help fathoming Southern black culture, Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand "the slave thing," as a top black Democrat dryly puts it.
The West Wing white guys who pushed to ditch Shirley Sherrod before Glenn Beck could pounce not only didn't bother to Google, they weren't familiar enough with civil rights history to recognize the name Sherrod. And they didn't return the calls and e-mail of prominent blacks who tried to alert them that something was wrong.
Dowd then collects quotes from several aging veterans of the 1960s civil rights era -- John Lewis, James Clyburn, Eleanor Holmes Norton -- as well as unnamed sources. Here is one of the anonymous quotes: "Who knew that the first black president would make it even harder on black people?"
Outside of wondering when the Irish-American Dowd became the arbiter of the authentically black in American politics, my first reaction to the above was, Who ever suspected that Andrew Breitbart was such an evil genius? In plucking Shirley Sherrod out of obscurity to make a point about the NAACP and the Tea Parties, could Breitbart have started a small-scale war among black American politicians?
All I can say is, thank God that instead of telling them all to shut up, baby boomer Maureen Dowd encouraged these political old timers to publicly nurse egos bruised when the Generation X occupants of the White House didn't fall down in awe of all things from the 1960s. The fault lines Dowd writes about have actually existed for some time now, but it is hard to imagine a less appropriate time for veterans of the civil rights era to be dissing Obama for lacking a personal claim to authentic black victim status. While Obama may not have shared their experiences in a pre-Civil Rights era South, neither do millions of other blacks born in the north at too late a date to recall seeing stories about Freedom Riders on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, or who heard parents talk about newspaper headlines about members of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee over breakfast.
Those doing the complaining about Obama on race seem to miss what the focus of most people in the Tea Party is. Obama not only shares the redistributionist agenda many so-called civil rights activists have promoted their entire political careers, but he is also coming close to putting that agenda into operation in major segments of the economy. There is nothing racial about being opposed to Marxist-style class warfare solutions that, for all their claims of social justice and fairness, have been repeatedly proven to worsen economic conditions for the vast majority of a nation's citizens.
This fall, Democrats need an enthusiastic turnout by black voters in several statewide election contests. Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio immediately come to mind. While expressed support for Obama among blacks remains very high in the polls, converting that support to actual votes for other Democrats on the November ballot is not a given -- not with the stated black unemployment rate currently exceeding 15%, black-on-black crime high, and large cities all across the nation cutting back on services.
Even a small drop in the turnout percentage among black voters could cost the Democrats several Senate seats and governor's mansions. Intensity of political support can be very much a function of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. This is not usually measured in the the abstract terms favored by academic types, who love mankind in general while showing disdain for most humans as individuals. "Where are the jobs?" is an almost universal political question this summer.
As someone who was a local political junkie when I lived in Chicago, Dowd's unawareness that Obama has heard the complaints she reported at least once before in his political career is amusing. In the tribalism of Chicago politics, the reaction to the Hawaiian-born, Indonesia-raised Barack Obama's status until quite recently was the wait-and-see attitude reserved for an untried son in-law, not the full embrace given a genuinely beloved member of the civil rights community. For years, some blacks looked at Obama's exceptionally large number of "present" votes in the State Senate and wondered what exactly his game was. Where could he be fit along the traditional local scale between the greedy pragmatists, who wanted only to run the Cook County Democrat machine for themselves, and the starry-eyed reformers, who desired to tear it all down in favor of their own pet theories of government?
Then, in their 2000 primary contest, Civil Rights-era veteran Congressman Bobby Rush effectively painted primary challenger Obama, the favorite of the University of Chicago community in Hyde Park, as an "educated fool" and an elite outsider. In promoting his own long career as a black nationalist to voters in Illinois' First Congressional District, Rush noted exactly what Dowd's sources say today: "Barack Obama is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it." Chicago political insiders also noticed that in a redistricting map drawn after the 2000 census that was notorious for allowing incumbents of both parties to pick their constituents instead of the other way around, Obama ended up with a district that contained more affluent white liberals and fewer poor blacks. Black political colleagues would poke fun at Obama's trying to fit in as one of them by talking jive even as he also reminded everyone of his Harvard law degree. Several expressed open dislike of him to one of the few white reporters in the 2004 election cycle who bothered to ask.
My own suspicion is that we will know if the black dissatisfaction Dowd writes about is real by how actively partisan the First Lady is on the campaign trail this fall. If her schedule includes a great many stops in cities in key states and appearances in front of local chapters of the NAACP, ACORN offshoots, and other black activist venues, we will know there is a general enthusiasm gap, and not just some grousing by old-timers about the Generation X crowd. That's because, in her criticism of Barack Obama's "too white" set of advisors, Dowd overlooked Michelle Obama. Her family's background in Chicago's identity politics makes her the member of the administration best-suited for outreach to those who refuse to let go of "the slave thing."
Coming on the heels of the Journolist revelations, Dowd's musings about Obama's White House being too white call to mind one of Obama's peers in the Illinois State Senate. Before the national media climbed onto Obama's bandwagon and he started bringing home the political bacon from Washington, D.C., critical comments about him were far from heresy in Chicago political circles. In 2000, Illinois State Senator Donne Trotter also challenged Congressman Bobby Rush in the primary. When asked about the campaign, Trotter said this to a reporter from the alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader:
Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community. You have only to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It's these individuals in Hyde Park, who don't always have the best interest of the community in mind.
Today, Senator Trotter's criticism can be seen as both insensitive to Obama's mixed-race background and remarkably prescient about his political base being strongest among the white radical left. Over twenty months after they elected Obama president, many American voters feel they still don't know the full measure of the man they voted for, while the motives of those supporters on Journolist who labored to keep the voters intentionally blind -- even while urging them to make a leap of faith -- have become increasingly suspect.