Commentary Magazine


Obama, the Tea Party, and the Incivility of Race Politics

Earlier this week, in the context of Mike Huckabee’s comments about Barack Obama’s being raised in Kenya, I wrote that while tough, and at times even fierce, criticism in politics was fine, demonization is not. “If we get to the point where we assume that our political differences can be explained only by some deeper, hidden evil in our opponents, then self-government itself is in trouble.”

I recount this because the point applies both ways. For example, reporter Kenneth Walsh has written a new book, Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House, in which he says: “But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent ‘Tea Party’ movement that was then surging across the country. … A guest suggested that when Tea Party activists said they wanted to ‘take back’ their country, their real motivation was to stir up anger and anxiety at having a black president, and Obama didn’t dispute the idea. He agreed that there was a ‘subterranean agenda’ in the anti-Obama movement—a racially biased one—that was unfortunate.”

Walsh’s account rings true, in part because Obama himself has said a more anodyne version of this in public. In a 2010 Rolling Stone interview, for example, the president was asked about the Tea Party and the people behind it. In describing the different strands of it, he said, “there are probably some aspects of the Tea Party that are a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as president.”

A few things need to be said about this. The first is that I’m sure the Tea Party Movement includes disreputable people, as any political movement does (see the Scott Walker = Adolf Hitler labor-union members in Wisconsin). But to believe that racism is a key component of the Tea Party Movement is an invention. Now it may well be that Obama’s self-regard is so great that he believes that only malevolent motivations and benighted people can oppose his agenda, that it’s simply inconceivable that his critics might be honorable people who have substantive differences with the president. But whether or not Obama can accept this, it happens to be true. And for the president to believe that racism is an animating force of the Tea Party Movement, and conservatism more broadly, is dangerous and ugly stuff.

The president, more than any other figure, is responsible for unifying our country, for ensuring that he doesn’t turn political opponents into political enemies and poison the well of our politics. As a candidate, Barack Obama gave voice to this belief as well as anyone. As president, he has fallen short time and time again. The gap between what he says and how he acts is enormous — and eventually, things like this catch up with a person and a president.

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