I’m starting to wonder: Is President Obama fair to African Americans?
Asked about Rep. Charlie Rangel’s ethics problems on CBS’s evening news, the president could hardly have been more direct if he’d seized Rangel by the belt and the back of the collar and pitched him out the door. “I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents very well, but these allegations are very troubling. And he’ll — he’s somebody who’s at the end of his career. Eighty years old. I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens.”
Rangel, who is fighting the ethics charges, had no plans to “end his career” and may wonder why the president is so eager to usher him offstage.
The Rangel toss comes in the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod affair. Though the White House and Democratic operatives have been beavering away, attempting to rewrite the history of this episode as an example of right-wing — specifically, Fox News — villainy, the truth is otherwise. Sherrod was fired, as she told it, due to White House worries that her story would be appearing on the Glenn Beck show. It was fear of the Beck show, not the actuality, that prompted the White House’s panicked response. Her dismissal came before any mention of her name on Fox air. Sherrod, who has since received apologies from the secretary of agriculture and President Obama, had ignited one of those racial flashpoints that President Obama seems particularly keen to avoid.
The White House may still be smarting from Glenn Beck’s successful “outing” of Obama’s “green-jobs czar,” Van Jones. But if so, it suggests that they misread that episode. Last summer, Beck discovered and trumpeted that Jones had a seriously left-wing extremist background. A former member of the Marxist group STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), Jones was an advocate for police-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and a signatory to a 9/11 “truther” petition. The petition called upon then–New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer to investigate whether “people within the current [Bush] administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war.” Jones is also an African American, and in the wake of the Sherrod affair, it’s fair to ask whether that fact loomed particularly large for the president.
Jones resigned in September 2009, presumably involuntarily. It had not been an easy summer for the White House. In addition to the tea parties and raucous town-hall meetings on health care, the president had mishandled the summer’s racial fireworks over Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley. Inserting himself gratuitously into the controversy, the president popped off that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates. Most Americans disagreed, and for the first time since his election, the president’s approval ratings among whites and blacks diverged dramatically. The Pew Center found that among people who had heard “a lot” about the president’s intervention in the issue, 41 percent disapproved while only 29 percent approved. Among African Americans, 85 percent registered support for the president following the incident while only 48 percent of whites approved.
Last fall, President Obama leaned heavily on New York governor David Paterson to pull out of the race for reelection. Patterson was facing ethics charges involving an aide accused of domestic violence as well as some penny-ante corruption — seeking free Yankees tickets. President Obama intervened to shove Paterson toward the door.
Both Van Jones and David Paterson arguably deserved to be kicked to the curb, as did Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the campaign. But Shirley Sherrod, as the world now knows, did not. And it may be that Representative Rangel does not. But in any case, it’s beginning to seem that President Obama has a hair trigger where African Americans are concerned.
If so, he’s overreacting. The gabosphere may hyperventilate over every fresh racial story, but there’s zero evidence that race plays any role in the country’s reaction to President Obama. He was wildly popular at his inauguration and has lost standing as he has a) disregarded the electorate’s wishes and b) failed to improve the economy. By rushing around putting out perceived racial fires (and occasionally igniting them), he demonstrates only that he misunderstands the problem.