EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Our first black president will turn over the White House next month to a man I took to calling the Orange Hindenburg, back when I was sure the candidacy of Donald Trump would crash and burn. I was certain that the political, social, and racial legacy of Barack Obama would be preserved by the so-called Obama coalition: the black and brown voters, backed by some white women and millennials, who had made him president. Instead, that legacy could be obliterated by what pundits are calling a “whitelash”: the unexpected surge of white voters who took their country back from a black man, refused to hand it over to a liberal white woman, and entrusted it instead to a man whose victory has been hailed by white nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan.
It would be simplistic to insist that Obama—specifically, his race—is responsible for Trump’s victory. After all, Hillary Clinton was the candidate, and she lost white voters and heavily white states that had gone for Obama in previous elections, most notably Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Although Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million, and although a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes in key states would have made her president, we must also acknowledge that her candidacy provoked the whitelash. And this undoubtedly had something to do with the failure of her campaign to craft a message that resonated with defeated, disaffected, and alienated white voters.
But we can’t look away from the fact that Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump, a man who went from being a washed-up reality-TV star to the leader of the Republican Party because of his cruel and irrational birtherism—his determination to “paper” our first black president and to paint him as other and illegitimate. That conspiracy theory, and everything it drew into its orbit, resonated strongly with the GOP’s overwhelmingly white base.
Obama, of course, did better with white voters in both of his elections than Clinton did, especially in 2008, when the financial crash and the Iraq War made many people desperate for a change from the GOP’s incompetence. But since Obama’s election, a sustained movement to racialize and marginalize the president—to paint him as siding with African-American cop killers, illegal Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, slutty women who want free birth control, and uppity gay people who demand that Christians bake them wedding cakes—stoked white grievance, especially but not exclusively on the right. Trump’s victory thus represents the culmination of the GOP’s 50-year project to fully racialize electoral politics—to scare an aging, declining white majority into voting as white people in a self-conscious way.
And so Obama, who made his name at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he told us “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” leaves the White House having been proven, on that point at least, wrong. We are a deeply divided country, vast red swaths against tiny urban specks and coastal enclaves of blue. The Orange Hindenburg is headed for the White House. How did this happen?
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We couldn’t have known it at the time, but Obama’s entire presidency was foreshadowed by the controversy that almost derailed it: the discovery in early 2008 that his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had over the years denounced the nation for its racial sins in searing, unforgiving language. “God damn America!” Wright thundered from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, in whose pews Obama famously sat throughout his formative adult years in Chicago. A military veteran who positioned himself in the same black prophetic tradition that had inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s denunciations of the Vietnam War, Wright had also declared that the 9/11 attacks were “America’s chickens…coming home to roost.”
Had Obama overlooked Wright’s most contentious views to experience the succor and community of the black church? Or did the radical pastor serve as his anger translator, an avatar of the vengeance that Obama would seek if white people were foolish enough to elect him president? More than a few white voters worried that it was the latter. Whenever racial tensions came to the fore in Obama’s two terms, that fear was again palpable.
Obama responded to the Wright controversy with a stunning, healing speech that saved his candidacy. In it, he did the seemingly impossible: He addressed the gulf between black and white Americans with empathy for both sides. To do so, he made himself the very symbol of American exceptionalism:
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
Then he delivered the most even-handed take on black and white racial resentments imaginable: He described the bitterness of Wright and other black people as the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, school segregation, and housing and employment discrimination, while explaining the anger of many white people as the result of a crumbling manufacturing base and stagnant economy.
For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor have the anger and the bitterness of those years.…
That anger is not always productive…. But the anger is real; it is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything; they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
White liberals in the media, already pro-Obama, went over the moon in reaction to these remarks. Many had already praised the healing power of the Illinois senator’s oratorical “gift,” in the words of Ezra Klein, who wrote after Obama won the Iowa caucuses: “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.” Andrew Sullivan, the conservative pundit turned Obama backer, hailed the address as a “searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech,” concluding that “I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy—not this man, his candidacy—and what he can bring us to achieve—is an historic opportunity.” Obama’s supporters, as well as no shortage of his skeptics, came to believe that he had the capacity to usher in a new era of racial comity and cooperation. If we elected him, many believed, Obama would show us that we had overcome.
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As history now proves, Obama’s white admirers turned out to be far too optimistic. In fact, his black critics knew right away that he’d sugarcoated things. Michael Eric Dyson questioned Obama for drawing a “false equivalence” between Wright’s anger and bitterness and the anger, bitterness, and racism of the white working class. If only the president had addressed our racial divide more directly; if only he’d spoken more frankly, more sharply, more frequently; if only he’d talked more about and done more to address the still-profound economic and social suffering of African Americans; maybe, these critics say, he’d have moved us further down the road toward genuine racial progress.
In his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, Dyson accused the president of “racial procrastination”: a stubborn refusal to address the issues of race until they explode. From his Wright speech on, Dyson complained, “Obama is forced to exaggerate black responsibility because he must always underplay white responsibility.” Finally, Dyson criticized the president’s emphasis on universal programs like the Affordable Care Act as inadequate to the challenge of African-American poverty. Obama has the equation backward, Dyson argued: “It is not that in helping everybody he helps black folk; it is that in helping black folk he helps America. Tackling race and solving the problems of the black and the poor makes America a stronger nation.”
I think these progressive critics ignore two important facts. First, on the comparatively rare occasions when Obama joined divisive racial debates, he suffered politically; the white backlash was strong. Obama’s approval rating among whites rose in Gallup’s tracking polls in the weeks after his 2008 election to a high of 63 percent on Inauguration Day, though he’d won only 43 percent of the white vote in the election itself. I believe that number reflected white America’s approval of itself for electing a black president more than it reflected an actual embrace of Obama. Indeed, the president’s approval rating among whites began to drop as soon as he faced the nascent Tea Party movement. The first big dip came in the summer of 2009, when Obama was drawn into his first racial controversy: the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police after he’d broken into his own home because his door was jammed. When Obama mildly remarked that the police had “acted stupidly” in arresting the distinguished and diminutive scholar, the loud voices of white America howled. Glenn Beck, then at Fox News, claimed that Obama’s comment reflected his “deep-seated hatred of white people.”
Around the same time, the Tea Party rebellion, which the mainstream media tried to depict as a backlash against out-of-control government spending, channeled white racial discomfort with the president. I went to the April 2009 “Tax Day” protest in San Francisco and found a man with an Obama = Imposter sign handing out fliers demanding that then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi begin impeachment proceedings because the president “is not a natural-born citizen.” (Trump, of course, would soon take up the same cause.) There was also a guy in a coonskin cap carrying a placard that read Reload for the Revolution alongside a picture of a gun. In the coming months, Tea Party rallies would exhibit even more overt racism: folks with signs depicting Obama as a monkey or an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose, or showing him and the first lady as characters from Planet of the Apes.
The president’s approval rating among whites soon plummeted. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2009, it dropped from 56 to 44 percent, according to Gallup. From then on, Obama’s enemies pummeled him with racially coded insults. Gearing up to run against him in 2012, Newt Gingrich took to calling Obama “the food-stamp president”; another 2012 also-ran, Michele Bachmann, derided his Chicago-style “gangster government.” Obama experienced another backlash when he said, after George Zimmerman murdered an unarmed Trayvon Martin in February 2012, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Right-wingers wondered why Obama didn’t identify with the white victims of black crime.
The second fact his critics ignore is that Obama rarely waded into racial issues not because he was a coward or dissembler, but because he genuinely believed he had the strongest political standing as the American president, not as the president of black America. I’m not weighing in on whether he was right about that; I’m simply observing that this is who Obama was. (Whether this is who he still is, right now, is something we won’t know until he leaves the Oval Office.) When Obama’s antiracist critics disparage his inadequate political maneuvering on race, they often misunderstand his own temperament and racial beliefs.
In general, Obama was a moderate who publicly testified to the greatness of American meritocracy because he believed in it, as he was one of its finest products. He succeeded because he had the capacity to make white people feel seen and understood. He gave them the benefit of the doubt about their goodness, and that became a source of his electoral strength—so he was never going to call out the racial animus against him. Obama believed in his own capacity to bridge racial divides because he had always done it before, whether at Honolulu’s Punahou School, Columbia University, Harvard Law School, or the Illinois Senate. In 2008, he liked to talk about creating “Obamacans”—Republicans who were fed up with their party’s nihilism and negativity, who were ready for a way out of gridlock, a path beyond red states and blue states.
Likewise, there was no reason to be surprised when Obama declined to jail Wall Street bankers; he was the candidate of Wall Street in 2008, not given temperamentally or ideologically to go after the too-big-to-fail banks despite their misdeeds. Nor would he ever make bold targeted moves to alleviate the persistent poverty and inequality suffered by African Americans. He had backed race-neutral programs to address poverty and disadvantage, arguing that such programs would have a disproportionately positive effect on black families, who were the ones disproportionately locked in poverty. “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics,” he wrote in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope.
Even so—even with this serious, moderate, modulated take on race—Obama provoked a “whitelash.” It’s tempting to say that he wasn’t well served by his optimism about America, by his belief in the “myth” of red and blue states, the potential for “Obamacans,” and his own capacity to win over GOP skeptics. A racial and political pessimist might have faced up to Republican obstruction and the white, right-wing backlash earlier and more forcefully. A pessimist might have had less faith in the goodwill of white people and been better prepared for the backlash.
But only a racial optimist could have been elected president.
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As he departs, though, with the Orange Hindenburg in view, many Democrats have to question our assumptions about the most important force behind the Obama presidency: the coalition that put him into the White House. Obama’s victory eight years ago represented the electoral triumph of the 1960s civil-rights movement, and in some ways, Trump’s victory represents its defeat. In part, that’s because Republicans, seeing the power of the Obama coalition, immediately began passing laws to restrict the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, young people, and poor people. The 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act proved the success of the post-VRA backlash, 48 years after the law was passed. Now we’re charged with organizing a multiracial, 21st-century civil-rights movement in its place. There are pieces of it already out there: the Rev. Dr. William Barber II’s “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, for example, which arose to counter the attacks on voting rights in that state, and which includes large numbers of white progressives in its ranks.
What we don’t need is a postmortem of Clinton’s campaign that concludes it lost because of its reliance on the Obama coalition. It’s true that the coalition didn’t turn out in the numbers that Clinton had hoped to see. But black voters can’t be expected to save our asses every four years, especially when their votes are being suppressed. And, yes, the Democrats have to work harder to win over white voters, especially the so-called white working class. The fact that a black man was able to do better with this group than Clinton did—or John Kerry and Al Gore before her—proves that race wasn’t the only issue behind their defection to Trump.
But race was a big issue, and in our urgency to figure out how to reach more whites, we must be careful not to sideline or diminish the role of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, and LGBTQ people. We can’t accept false dichotomies between race and class. The speed with which so many progressives—most of them white and male—have seized on “identity politics” as the problem with Clinton’s campaign is puzzling. The fact that we’re seeing a battle between “identity politics” and “class politics” seems a little overwrought—especially based on an insanely close election in which we can easily name a dozen things that would have made the difference—and it suggests that the forces against racial and gender diversity, equality, and inclusion are seeing their opportunity.
As we correct our course, let’s not fetishize the votes of white working-class voters, but instead focus on policies that help the multiracial working class, including whites. If we get this wrong, the Democrats’ multiracial coalition will splinter, and it will be a generation before we win back the White House. We won’t just fail to build a new civil-rights movement; we’ll nudge the country closer to a new Civil War. And we’ll betray our first black president, who has to hand the White House over on January 20 to a man who’s said that Obama didn’t deserve to be there. He, and we, deserve better than that.