Affirmative Action Baby

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a brief meditation on the meme of Obama as the “Affirmative Action President” at Atlantic today, and it’s worth some additional commentary. After noting Karl Rove’s claim that white voters who had given Obama a chance in 2008 would now turn against him as a “failed experiment,” he suggests:

It’s a familiar echo which goes all the way back to calls for Obama’s college transcripts. What Republicans have yet to come to terms with is that Obama — race aside — is a formidable politician. You hear echoes of the early days of the integration of black athletes into the sports world, when white racists would contort themselves trying to understand how, exactly, someone like Jack Johnson had prevailed. It’s very hard for Rove and his allies to get their heads around the fact that they got thumped in 2008 by an Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. Some scheme must be afoot.

I’d say it goes even deeper than that, and is only partly about race. Conservatives are deeply invested in the idea that there is a “natural” majority supporting their policies. So 2008–the first time a Democratic candidate had won a majority of the popular vote since 1976–came as a big shock. Part of their reaction involved the revisionist argument that Obama’s victory was not a defeat for conservatism, because Bush had “abandoned his conservative principles” and/or John McCain never really had them. Others indulged themselves in the fabulist theory of an ACORN-driven “stolen election.”

But an even more common theory has been that Obama won because he was black and thus benefited from (a) a historically large and overwhelmingly Democratic minority vote, (b) a higher-than-deserved white vote based on the idea that a Black President could bury racial animosities, and (c) kid-glove media treatment. The very nature of this line of “reasoning” suggested Obama was getting the kind of big thumb on the scales that conservatives often think minority folk get in all kinds of otherwise competitive contexts.

Some conservative gabbers, of course, have gone right over the brink and argued that Obama has always been an “affirmative action baby” who would be some dope-sucking street punk if he hadn’t always gotten favorable treatment. The most famous argument along these lines was offered by The American Thinker‘s Matt Patterson in 2011, in a piece entitled “The Affirmative Action President.” Here are a couple of bites from that toxic stew:

Obama himself was never troubled by his lack of achievements, but why would he be? As many have noted, Obama was told he was good enough for Columbia despite undistinguished grades at Occidental; he was told he was good enough for the US Senate despite a mediocre record in Illinois; he was told he was good enough to be president despite no record at all in the Senate. All his life, every step of the way, Obama was told he was good enough for the next step, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. What could this breed if not the sort of empty narcissism on display every time Obama speaks?….

In short: our president is a small and small-minded man, with neither the temperament nor the intellect to handle his job. When you understand that, and only when you understand that, will the current erosion of liberty and prosperity make sense. It could not have gone otherwise with such a man in the Oval Office.

The cretinous Howie Carr of the Boston Herald has played this theme monotonously, but it’s popped up episodically all over conservative-land, particularly in the bizarre supposition that Obama is uniquely dependent on teleprompters (a way of discounting his eloquence).

It’s part and parcel of the Right’s general inability to make a case against Obama based on what he actually says and does, which is pretty remarkable. He can’t be what he appears to be to most liberals: a center-left politician who is very much in the Clinton tradition, who really would prefer to attract some Republican support, and often compromises his own positions before he offers them. No, he’s a secret Alinskyite who dreams of turning America into Sweden, hates Christianity, and despises the private sector (which is why, no doubt, he chose to make private insurance companies the vehicle for his “socialist” health care plan, rejected calls for nationalization of big banks at the height of the financial crisis, and preferred a market-based cap-and-trade system for dealing with carbon emissions instead of command-and-control regulation).

And this determination to turn Obama into some sort of minstrel-show caricature is why the “affirmative action” meme implicitly endorsed by the likes of Karl Rove has such a nasty undertone: You, white Americans, tried to give those people a chance, but you know what? They turned out to be exactly what you always suspected, even in that half-black, cleaned-up, over-educated version named Barack Obama! So screw ’em!

So if people like me sometimes seem a mite sensitive to the possibility that massively distributed ads suggesting without evidence that Obama is stealing from old white people to give money to lazy welfare bums could represent a racial appeal, that could be why. Coates is right: it infuriates people like Rove that their conservative-majority-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see was derailed in 2008 by this Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. They can’t believe he beat them fair and square, so they’ll say he’s predictably failed in hopes that they can get the course of history back on track.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.