Color of change

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; 8:57 AM

When was the last time you thought of Barack Obama as a black president?

The historic nature of his victory, of course, rested on his breaking the two-century streak of 43 white guys. But as was much observed at the time, Obama never ran as an African American candidate. With the exception of the race speech he gave in Philadelphia at the height of the Jeremiah Wright furor, he largely resisted the urge to cast his candidacy in racial terms. He didn't have to.

And for all the heated rhetoric being thrown at him these days -- socialist, sellout, soporific, yadda yadda yadda -- I don't think anyone has accused him of a racial approach to politics. People want to know what he's doing about unemployment and health care and climate change. In a very real sense, he seems to have transcended race.

(I was going to make a Tiger Woods analogy here, but at the moment that seems like a decidedly bad idea.)

So it is striking to see Obama talking about the subject with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks. If her questions are any indication, some blacks, like many other Americans, are disappointed in the president. Even if he is their president.

I have no doubt that no matter how deep a hole Obama digs himself, African Americans, who are already the most loyal Democratic group, will remain his fiercest defenders. The latest Gallup tracking poll puts black support of the president at 90 percent -- just where it was after the inauguration. White support for Obama, by contrast, is at 42 percent.

Still, if the country's expectations for this president were unrealistically high after the Yes We Can campaign, that may have been especially true in the black community.

Obama told Ryan that "if you want me to line up all the black actors, for example, who support me and put them on one side of the room and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I'm happy to have that. . . .

"Is there grumbling?" he asked. "Of course, there's grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There's a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said on health care, we're the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health-care plans. So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let's take a look at what I've done."

The use of "we" is interesting. Nothing wrong with it, when a black president is talking to a black journalist. It's self-evidently true. I am just accustomed to hearing Obama speak in a more inclusive way. And this is a striking formulation:

"The only thing I cannot do is, by law I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the president of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African American community."

In other words, Obama argues, good politics generally is good black politics as well.

Healthy Debate

Obama is doing a spate of pre-Christmas interviews on health care, including this one with The Washington Post: "President Obama rejected in an interview Tuesday the criticism that he has compromised too much in order to secure health-care reform legislation, challenging his critics to identify any 'gap' between what he campaigned on last year and what Congress is on the verge of passing."

It's like the title of that old song: I Never Promised You a Public Option.

But is the patched-together Senate compromise real reform? The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn says liberals are underestimating the measure, and backs up his argument with numbers:

"Here on the left, not all of us are jumping for joy. Some think the Senate bill is just barely better than nothing. Others think it's worse than even that.

"As this argument goes, health care reform won't do all that much to help people who need it. Insurance will still be expensive and even people who have coverage will discover they owe significant out-of-pocket expenses once they get sick. A public insurance option might have made this tolerable, since it would have provided better, cheaper coverage. Without it, many of us are arguing, reform is just a big giveaway to the insurance industry -- one that produces little social progress. . . .

"So what happens if reform does pass? For starters -- and this is no small thing -- the insurance company will have to sell you a policy, no matter what pre-existing conditions your family brings to the table. And you'll know from the start that the policy will cover basic services because the government will be defining a basic benefits package. That package is going to include a broader range of services than the typical non-group policy would without reform. So when your doctor recommends a standard test or procedure, you won't have to panic it falls into some hidden policy loophole. . . .

"We should also recognize the Senate bill for what it is: A measure that will make people's lives significantly better. Surely that's worth a little enthusiasm."

Joe Klein is somewhat enthusiastic -- and fed up with the lefty blogosphere:

"As regular readers know, I'm deeply skeptical about the polling of complicated issues like health care . . . but it is interesting to note that, according to CNN, support for health care reform is up, especially among Democrats. This may or may not have something to say about the impact of left-wing bloggers and Deaniacs trying to scuttle the bill -- i.e., their impact is minimal. Oh, they can raise some money, and eyebrows, but when they call themselves the Democratic party's 'base,' they're being excessively optimistic. They are, if anything, the wing not the base.

"And given the reactionary arguments against a bill that is a massive transfer of wealth -- via subsidies -- toward the working poor, I'd be reluctant to call these people 'progressives' as well -- progressivity, strictly defined, being the notion that rich should pay a higher tax rate than the poor."

Rich Lowry , meanwhile, gives Ben Nelson an award that I suspect is not totally serious:

"The highest-profile Democratic hold-out on Obamacare, Nelson said last week, 'My vote is not for sale.' He obviously meant that in the sense that he'd be righteously indignant at any suggestion that his vote could possibly be bought for anything less than the low nine digits.

"Nelson got the feds to pick up forevermore 100 percent of the additional Medicaid spending that will be imposed on Nebraska by the bill. In stereotypically Orwellian fashion, the provision is called 'Equitable Support for Certain States.' That, naturally enough, translates into special, inequitable support for three states, totaling $1.2 billion over ten years. Vermont and Massachusetts argue they are due the funds for prior expansions of Medicaid, but what's Nebraska's excuse?

"By the standards of Washington, Nelson deserves to be named 'legislator of the year,' with distinction in gross backroom dealing. His plunder perfectly encapsulates the current Democratic project in all its shameless audacity."

I don't mind giving lawmakers a dam or post office to get their vote, but how does the White House even pretend to justify giving some states more Medicaid help than others? Interesting quote from Harry Reid, who told the WP that "there are 100 senators here, and I don't know that there's a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that isn't important to them. If they don't have something in it important to them, it doesn't speak well of them."

Gee: he's criticizing those who didn't make deals.

At the Daily Beast, Reihan Salam says the health bill will help the GOP, at least for now:

"In a sense, the Democrats have finally avenged the death of Bill Clinton's bid for universal coverage, which set in motion the 1994 Republican congressional takeover and all that followed. Even Evan Bayh, the moderate Democratic senator from Indiana who is far from a party loyalist, reportedly couldn't stand the thought of Republicans gloating over the defeat of health-care reform the second time around. . . .

"Democrats will keep on attacking Republicans as the 'Party of No.' But as voters grow increasingly skeptical of Obama's scattershot efforts to remake the American economy, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Republicans running in 2010 will have to build an agenda centered on spurring job growth. Among other things, candidates could call for using stimulus funds to fund payroll-tax relief and an expanded investment tax credit. This agenda should also include proposals for trimming entitlement spending, but it probably won't.

"During the debate over health-care reform, congressional Republicans emerged as the most dogged defenders of the Medicare status quo. In part, this reflects the fact that those non-college-educated voters who aren't thrilled with President Obama are the same swing voters who weren't thrilled with President Bush's calls for reforming Social Security. A large and growing number of Republican voters consider the middle-class welfare state LBJ built to be as American as apple pie.

"This poses a serious problem for tax-cutting conservatives over the long run. But it's not going to get resolved in 2010. What Republicans can offer is a check on overreaching Democrats, and that might be more than enough."

Steele Trap

That Washington Times scoop about the RNC chairman moonlighting as a paid speaker draws catcalls from the left, including the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen:

"The Republican National Committee has been awfully tolerant of Steele's incompetence, mismanagement, and humiliating gaffes this year. But this is a revelation that may put Steele's job in jeopardy.

"Several former RNC chairmen said on the record that Steele's lucrative little scheme is hard to defend. Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., RNC chairman under Reagan, said, 'Holy mackerel, I never heard of a chairman of either party ever taking money for speeches. . . . The job of a national chairman is to give speeches. That's what the national party pays him for.'

"I suspect RNC members may be reluctant to switch chairmen less than a year from the midterm elections. It would be disruptive and embarrassing. On the other hand, is the party really prepared to keep an incompetent chairman who's using his title to line his own pockets?"

It doesn't help Steele that one of his predecessors is ripping him.

Pouncing on Pawlenty

Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs, who had earlier declared his independence from the right, goes off on a possible White House contender:

"Newsweek has an interview with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the very model of a modern GOP candidate, considered by many as a possible front runner for the presidency in 2012: Anti-science and anti-gay.

"Let me ask you about social issues your party has been dealing with. In her book, Palin claims that McCain's handlers wanted her to be silent about her belief in creationism. How would you describe your view?

"I can tell you how we handle it in Minnesota. We leave it to the local school districts. We don't mandate a curriculum or an approach. We allow for something called "intelligent design" to be discussed as a comparative theory. It doesn't have to be in science class.

"Is this a kind of 'moderate' creationism?

"Well, Pawlenty is clearly trying to soft-pedal it, but no, there's nothing 'moderate' about this. The fact is that "intelligent design" has no validity whatsoever, as a 'comparative theory' or any other kind of theory. ID is not a 'theory' at all in the scientific sense -- it's a marketing ploy to repackage fundamentalist Christian creationism in a cheap pseudo-scientific suit."

Could this become an issue in a Republican primary?

Today's Tiger

Tiger is still a player? Can this really be true? Can the unnamed source quoted by In Touch be believed?

"Tiger Woods hasn't shown his face since the news broke that he'd been cheating on his wife, Elin Nordegren, with as many as a dozen porn stars, cocktail waitresses and party girls. But Tiger isn't in seclusion, depressed and watching cartoons, as many news outlets have reported -- In Touch can exclusively reveal that he's still secretly having sex with his mistress, New York party promoter Rachel Uchitel. 'They have been sleeping together the entire time since the scandal broke,' her friend says. They hooked up in a condo she's been staying at in Palm Beach."

Well, at least he's staying in shape.

Meanwhile, Uchitel (who, with the press, has denied any affair) tells Hollywood Life that she's "not pregnant."

MSNBCer Goes Rogue

After MSNBC's Ed Schultz was on "Morning Joe," the Radio Equalizer reports, the liberal talker had this to say on his radio show:

"So Mika starts looking at her Blackberry and so does Scarborough and obviously the White House is texting them or emailing them or whatever and they didn't like the show. Because Arianna had been on there, I'm on there, Howard Dean had been on there and they wanted some balance.

"Now think about that -- here's the White House getting in contact with 'Morning Joe' because they're afraid there's too many lefties on the air! Now if that's not sensitivity at its highest level, I don't know what is! I told ya a few days ago they had rabbit ears! They don't like anything that's being said right now, they're getting beat up!"

Ed speaks his mind. But how does he know what some White House official was texting his colleagues, if in fact a White House official was texting at all?

Chicago journalist Steve Rhodes has quit as a blogger for after the Web site killed his item about Tribune CEO Sam Zell handing the reins to his chief lieutenant Randy Michaels. Rhodes, who reported some rather, ah, colorful information about Michaels's past, said he was told that "the highest levels of the company" made the decision "to remove" the Michaels post. (You can reach the cached version here.)

Rhodes writes: "How can journalists keep quiet about what goes on in their own shops while cajoling -- and even moralizing to -- others to speak out about what goes on in theirs?. . . .

"It makes me sick to my stomach. News organizations are the biggest hypocrites on the planet because they so often violate ethical standards -- conflicts of interest, deception of the public -- that they so often try to hold others to."

Locker Room Confidential

Athletes should be very afraid: TMZ Sports is coming!

Happy holidays

I'm taking a few days off. The blog will return early next month.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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