There’s an interesting passage in this NYT article on Barack Obama and race:
Though Mr. Obama’s presidency ended up being defined in many ways by America’s reaction to his race, he carefully avoided racially liberal appeals during his original campaign, even taking the time to criticize the purported excesses of campus liberalism. Mr. Obama had begun his national political career with a speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, declaring that “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” During his 2008 campaign, to give just one example, he turned down an invitation to Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union, an event Hillary Clinton attended.
I never thought Barack Obama was a typical African American, which is unsurprising given he’s the offspring of a Kenyan father and white American mother rather than the descendants of slaves. Indeed, Obama’s only connection with slavery was that his mother’s ancestors used to own some. But even in his politics he seemed more steeped in the anti-colonialism Marxism of his father than the race-hustling of the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Sure, he no doubt engaged in plenty of race-hustling while a community organiser in Chicago, but that was a means to an end rather than a lifetime obsession. His wife, on the other hand, seemed to be quite the opposite: her thesis was called Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community, which gives you an idea what was on her mind as a young lady. I’ve heard said that Barack was content to date white women before someone nudged him in the ribs and said if he wants a political career he’d better get with the programme and pick a sista, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.
Whatever you think of Obama, his 2008 campaign was not based on identity politics, and a lot of people hoped he’d be a normal president who happened to be black, rather than a Black President. Everyone overlooked Condoleeza Rice’s skin colour because it was irrelevant to her public persona; by contrast, people like Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris have made theirs a central part of who they are, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. In 2008, Obama knew that if he ran on a black-as-an-identity platform he’d likely lose, and I genuinely don’t think he personally saw himself that way. However, by the time the 2016 election came around US politics had swung completely in the direction of identity politics:
During her 2016 campaign, Mrs. Clinton invoked concepts like intersectionality, white privilege, implicit bias and systemic racism. She warned of “deplorables,” while Mr. Obama once gave a speech arguing that “to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns” was something that “widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.” According to the American National Election Studies 2016 survey, Democrats perceived Mrs. Clinton as more racially liberal than they had perceived Mr. Obama in 2012, when his strategy was not notably different.
So what happened? I think much as though Obama wanted to be a normal president who happened to be black, he felt beholden to the adoring masses of African Americans who genuinely believed he was one of them. When millions of people are shouting “black, black, blackety-black” at you and one of them is likely your wife, eventually you’re going to start believing it. Particularly stupid was Obama’s remark that Trayvon Martin “could have been my son”. The progeny of well-connected Ivy-league graduates is unlikely to get himself shot by a vigilante while roaming the grounds of a gated community in Florida even if he’s black, mainly because he’d never be there in the first place. Obama’s children have nothing more in common with Trayvon Martin than those ghetto kids saying “ah’m Tiger Woods” in 1996 had with their club-swinging idol. But this happened in 2013 during his second term, and it was 2016 when he invited Black Lives Matter to the White House. This was unlikely something 2008 Obama would have done, and probably not 2012 Obama either.
What was obvious is many African Americans, and certainly all the race-hustlers among them, thought Obama was “their” president and he ought to put black issues first. The reality was while Obama was flattered enough to make the right noises, sorting out black America’s issues was no easier for him than it was for anyone else, not that he bothered to try. This is why there’s a sizeable portion of African Americans who think Obama let them down; finally they get one of their own in the White House, but nothing changed. Like with so much of Obama’s presidency, he neither did one thing or the other. If he’d have shunned racial politics entirely and simply been a president who happened to be black, it would have been an enormous arrow in the heart of identity politics. Instead by dabbling in it during his second term and embracing some of the most damaging aspects of black American culture, he allowed every other minority to view the presidency as a vehicle for furthering special interests rather than transcending them. I doubt Hillary Clinton would have centered her entire campaign on being a woman had Obama not left office with the likes of Black Lives Matter believing they had the ear of the president.
To be fair, I think Obama probably lacked the mental strength to shrug off the enormous pressures that came from being the first black president; I suspect anyone else would have succumbed to some degree. But what’s certain is that the Democrats have bought into identity politics wholesale and aren’t letting go, and it’s a matter of time before the rest of the country follows suit. Ironically, that may well be Obama’s real legacy.