Race and the Presidency

Matt Yglesias had an interesting post the other day, making an argument that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t yet written up. Matt speculates that an Obama victory might, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lead to a more racially charged (and thus even more unpleasant) politics. I agree, if for slightly different reasons than he offers.

Because we invest impossible expectations in the office of the presidency, the presidency has become an impossible job. And once the honeymoon period inevitably fades, the modern president becomes a lightning rod for discontent, often catching blame for phenomena beyond the control of any one person, however powerful. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:

on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.

Obama has done more than any presidential candidate in a generation to increase expectations for the office, expectations that were insanely high to begin with. If he’s elected, when he fails to bind up the nation’s wounds, fix health care, teach our children well, provide balm for our itchy souls, etc. etc., his hope-addled rhetoric will seem all the more grating, and the public will increasingly come to see him as the source of all American woes. As his popularity dwindles, many of Obama’s defenders will view attacks on him through the prism of race, forgetting or ignoring the fact that nearly every president eventually morphs from superhero to scapegoat in the public mind. Since some of the attacks on Obama will, unfortunately, be racially charged, his supporters will always be able to find reasons to cry racism, and try to discredit the conservative critique of Obama’s presidency. Conservatives will resent being lumped in with bigots and hit back harder, and on and on it will go. Race will take on undue relevance because the presidency is far more powerful and far more important than it ought to be. Until that changes, we shouldn’t expect any president, however well-intentioned, to be “a uniter, not a divider” in American life.


Posted on Oct 9, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Liberalism | Comments

6 Responses to “Race and the Presidency”

  1. Posted by: Chuck - 10/11/2008

    This is a great post, Gene. I had had a similar thought for a while, albeit my version is less sophisticated.

    Upon Obama’s election, the instant narrative from would-be “Big Thinkers” will be “What does this mean for race in America?” Instead of sticking to a prudent, minimalist, just the facts, ma’am approach, the punditariat will rush to say the most novel and outrageous thing possible. That’s how you get remembered. (I still cannot figure out how Toni Morrison thinks Bill Clinton was our first Black President, but there it is, stuck in my memory.)

    The minimalist approach would be to say “Well, I guess this proves that a Black guy can get elected POTUS in America.”

    But that would be boring because it’s merely true. So instead you’ll have some ass-clown like Spike Lee–in fact, let me predict that it actually will be Spike Lee–say something like, “I bet a bunch of White People are now proudly telling themselves lies like ‘There’s no more racism in America.’ The truth is, America is more racist than ever!”

    And then there will be the racist attacks against Obama. And the over-generalized counter-attacks on White People.

    And we will never, ever shut up about this bullshit.

  2. Posted by: Jonathan B. - 11/13/2008


    I am guessing another name for this would be race politics. When Obama was elected when I discussed his impending presidency on the internet, I inevitably was called a racist for criticizing him. If it isnt the right brow beating us with calls of being “unpatriotic” it will be the left with calls of “Bigot, Racist” etc etc ad nauseum.


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