Obama vs. Clinton: Who Was the Real First Black President?

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By Hakim Hasan

Recently, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton held a surreal press conference about Obama’s tax bill at the White House briefing room. After making a brief statement, Obama relinquished the podium to Clinton and left to attend a Christmas party.

Clinton was left alone to respond to questions.  Obama had succeeded in turning what he described as a “slow news day” into a major news story.

Bill Clinton was “projected” as the credible “president” to explain Obama’s tax bill and its impact on the economy.  It looked as if a bloodless coup had occurred. What was Obama thinking by relinquishing the podium?

The press conference played out centuries of racial conditioning as to who really has the right to exercise intellectual   and managerial authority, even if you are the first “Black” president elected in the United States.

One unexamined aspect of this story is how race has impacted Obama’s authority as president when he speaks about his administration’s policies and the economy for that matter. It now seems as if Americans are simply not listening to him as president.

It is odd. The same Obama whose charm, eloquence, and intelligence allowed him to win the presidency in 2008 is now being portrayed by the press as The Great Non-Communicator. With 2010 coming to a fast end and the mid-term election altering the power dynamics in Congress, Obama was fighting to pass his tax bill—a bill that he signed into law last Friday.

Some pundits have argued that Obama had to be comfortable in his presidential skin in order to leave Clinton alone at the podium and attend a holiday party. Not quite.

Obama had already locked himself into a visual Catch-22 situation. Whether he stayed or left the press conference, he would have looked like a black president who had ceded his authority to a former white president.

Maybe Obama’s game plan was to do just that: play a strategic game of racial, even ethnic, reassurance that allowed Americans to channel Bill Clinton as president. It is a game that most Black-Americans have learned to play in order to survive in society or the workplace. It is the old soft-shoe of feigned acquiescence—or good old “We Wear The Mask” strategic Uncle Tomming.

After all, Obama’s short-term strategy was to stave off a revolt against his tax bill by Democrats and sell it to Congress and the American people. Bill Clinton, in this context, was playing the historical role and all too familiar role of a white man vouching for a black man before the mob.

The very next morning The New York Times ran a visually reassuring front page photograph showing Bill Clinton at the podium while Obama was leaving to attend a holiday party. It looked like Clinton assumed the presidency.

Obama strategically played the race card- in reverse by deploying Bill Clinton at the White House press conference.  He had no choice.  Obama had spent the entire week explaining the logic and rationale for his tax bill and no one appeared to be listening to him.

The president is a pragmatic politician from Chicago. He is not Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. He reminds me of David R. Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City, and Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago. Both of these men were political trailblazers and were met with a tremendous political and social backlash. No Black mayor was ever elected again as mayor in either city.

Obama is facing a monumental backlash after almost two years in office. Obama has to silently know that, even as president, this nation is still largely emotionally and racially ill-equipped to deal with black folks in positions of authority or talking about anything other than the state of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Hakim Hasan lives in the New York City metropolitan area. He can be reached at: hhasan2@aol.com.

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