Pushback Against Obama: It's About Race, And It Isn't

Of course it's about race. And of course it's not. What could be more obvious?

Tune in to black talk radio. The conversation begins with the assumption that President Obama is getting pushback unlike any president in history. Point Two: It's because he's black. People who would otherwise respect and follow the White House — and never think of being rude to a president — are behaving differently because this one is black. So it's all about race.

But tune in to conservative talk radio, and nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, commentators and callers insist, the new president's race is a buffer and a shield. People who would lambaste any other president hesitate to breathe a discouraging word about this one, fearing a charge of racism. Therefore: The criticism of the president has nothing whatsoever to do with race.

Everything's obvious from that perspective, too.

The points of view are clearly contradictory, but in a sense they are also similar. They each contain elements of reality, but both turn false when pushed to their illogical extreme.

And that's just what people seem determined to do.

House Republican Leader John Boehner neatly encapsulated the all-or-nothing nature of the debate in his weekly news conference. "The outrage that we see in America has nothing to do with race," Boehner told the reporters. "It has everything to do with the policies that [the president] is promoting."

Nothing and everything. Neat and tidy.

A day earlier, President Jimmy Carter was close to the same oversimplification in the opposite direction, stressing the "racist attitude" in recent protests.

In the end, denying the possibility of truth on the other side of the debate is what makes both sides wrong. But it is not the only thing the two sides have in common. Both are nearing a boiling point, and in both cases their anger feeds on fear.

African-Americans react with indignation at any suggestion that President Obama is less a president than his predecessors. They are attuned to even subtle slights, let alone a nationally televised slap such as Joe Wilson's interruption of a presidential address.

Their underlying dread is that the breakthrough achievements of Election Day and Inauguration Day will be canceled by a latter-day "massive resistance," the blowback that followed the 1953 Supreme Court ruling against segregation in schools. Even deeper lie memories more than a century old of Jim Crow laws enacted to reverse the gains former slaves had made after Emancipation.

Of course, the anti-Obama voices are angry, too. They sense that this new president's policies, and indeed, this new president, have been thrust on them by political and social changes they do not accept and by news and entertainment media they do not respect. They sense in his program, and yes, in his persona, a challenge to their own convictions and their own security.

That makes them angry, but there is something else as well. At the Value Voters Summit in Washington this week, participants often spoke of being frightened or scared. They sense the country they grew up in — the world they knew — slipping away.

They also fear that their ability to do anything about all this is evanescent. That unless they take strong exception to the trends of today — unless they fight — they will find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

At base, the two sets of anger and fear are cousins, maybe even siblings. But that does not make the two sides of the debate feel much empathy for each other.

Nor is there much help to be found in the official political arena, dominated as it is by the parties and the media. The parties have less interest than ever in harmony or cooperation. In part, that's because they have lost so much of their internal diversity, moving instead toward intraparty ideological unanimity. In the modern Congress, members fear defeat in a primary at least as much as defeat in November.

For their part, the media are less interested in the traditional, play-it-safe, middle-of-the-road reporting because their business models are changing. The old competition for the largest audience, the watchword of newspaper wars and network broadcasting, is giving way to a smaller-scale competition for the most loyal audience.

In the world of cable TV and niche radio, Web site news and blogs, the premium is on being provocative. Playing up the anger in the body politic, and playing on the fear, can attract an audience of faithful partisans on one side or the other. And as these media take a harder edge, their more traditional colleagues are drawn to follow suit.

Talk of "post-racial politics" last winter was always terribly premature. The question now is whether we are even heading in that direction.

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