Which famous Bill did President Obama seem to channel in his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus last weekend? Was it Bill Clinton and his racial political playbook, or Bill Cosby and his “tough love” act?
I bet it was both. And among black voters, given the maddening quandaries of national elections, it’s likely that Obama will get away with it, too.
With his fiery address to the crowd at the CBC’s annual dinner, the president appropriated a legendary Clinton tactic.
In 1992, when Clinton ran for president, he was desperate to woo white conservatives. In a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, he attacked Sister Souljah, the rapper and activist who had made a controversial statement to The Washington Post about the Los Angeles riots.
“If black people kill black people every day,” she had said, “why not have a week and kill white people?”
In his speech, Clinton likened Sister Souljah’s remarks to those by white supremacist David Duke. By showing toughness against African Americans, he hoped to impress Reagan Democrats and other white conservatives.
For Obama, the calculation may have been similar. His CBC speech may have been a gentler version, but he, too, seemed to play the race card.
After a rousing call to his black base, Obama said: “I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on.”
Complaining? Grumbling? Crying?
It’s true, people applauded. But some were baffled by the president’s words.
“I’m not sure exactly who the president was talking to,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said in a CBS “Early Show” interview. “The president spoke to the Hispanic Caucus, and . . . he certainly didn’t tell them to stop complaining. And he would never say that to the gay and lesbian community, who really pushed him on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ . . . He would never say to the Jewish community, ‘Stop complaining about Israel.’ So I don’t know who he was talking to, because we’re certainly not complaining.”
Granted, the reference to complaining was a single statement near the end of the address. Still, shrewd politicians often convey key messages by sprinkling offhand comments into their speeches.
Consider former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young’s famous remarks in 1984, when he used a speech at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta to vent his frustration with stubborn campaign managers for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. In a casual reference, he characterized Mondale’s handlers as “smart-ass white boys.”
The topic of the speech was forgotten. That one phrase made headlines nationwide.
Politicians and speechwriters grasp the symbolism of words. It’s hard to believe that Obama’s aides wouldn’t know how words such as “complaining” and “grumbling” and “crying” inevitably evoke the perception some hold of African Americans as people who contribute little to society, but who always seem to be whining about what they want the government to do for them.
At the CBC gathering, most of the people in the room were black. But is it possible that, like Clinton, Obama was speaking to white voters?
That key quote from his address was rebroadcast on national networks; hearing those words, or reading about them, white voters could easily conclude that Obama was lecturing blacks to stop griping.
Which brings us to Cosby. In recent years, the comedian has ignited fierce debates over his “tough love” speeches asserting that “lower-economic people” are failing the civil rights movement by “not holding up their end.”
Black critics say Cosby’s messages mirror stereotypes held by some whites about lazy African Americans failing to take responsibility for their fates. In that context, Obama’s entreaty to “take off your bedroom slippers” certainly could be construed as a Cosbyesque image of blacks passively sitting at home, not working. (In fact, one newspaper headline characterized the speech as a message of “Tough Love.”)
Beyond votes, there is certainly reason to believe that Obama has something to gain by sending white voters coded messages. Throughout his presidency, he has been dogged by suspicions that he might somehow show bias toward African Americans.
Before the CBC speech, some African Americans had complained — that word again! — that Obama, careful to avoid the appearance of addressing black concerns, had not even acknowledged that black unemployment is the highest of any group in the nation.
As was the case with Clinton in 1992, blacks may be willing to overlook the racial calculations in Obama’s speech. That partly captures African Americans’ dilemma in national party politics. Whites may feel assured that their interests are at least partially represented by whichever white person wins a national election, whether Democrat or Republican. But blacks tend to regard their electoral options as all or nothing: They see a choice between conservative Republicans, who seem dead-set against them, and Democrats, who might be more sensitive and less hostile.
Throw in the emotional import of the first black president, and the result is an obsession with protecting Obama that can border on blindness. “Don’t ask anything of him,” some say. “Don’t criticize him. Just support him.” Any black person who deviates risks being tagged a traitor.
Such logic is troubling. If Obama must be president to all Americans, then shouldn’t blacks be included in that equation? If Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the 2008 election, would she have been expected to keep away from women’s issues to prove that she harbors no female bias? Can we not accept that Obama is a politician who can be as calculating as, say, Bill Clinton?
Our inclination to ask so little of “everybody’s president” seems a strange capitulation, suggesting that black people are willing to allow the entire group’s interests to take a back seat to one man’s reelection hopes.
Maybe that’s the issue: Many blacks see Obama’s success and our interests as inseparable — all or nothing.
So our black president plays the race card, and more than likely, he gets a pass.
Nathan McCall teaches African American studies at Emory University. He is the author of “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.”