Joan Walsh: Legacy of ‘Moderate’ Obama ‘Could Be Obliterated’ Because of a ‘Whitelash’

Like most observers, The Nation’s Joan Walsh expected that the voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 would turn out for Hillary Clinton, whose presidency would safeguard Obama’s “political, social, and racial legacy.” Of course, countless expectations were dashed on November 8, when, as Walsh puts it, an “unexpected surge of white voters…took their country back from a black man [and] refused to hand it over to a liberal white woman.”

In her piece in the magazine’s January 2-9 issue, Walsh suggested that Obama hurt Hillary’s chances of winning pretty much by just being himself for eight years. Even though it was Clinton’s name on the ballot, “we can’t look away from the fact that [she] was defeated by Donald Trump…who went from being a washed-up reality-TV star to the leader of the Republican Party because of his cruel and irrational birtherism…That conspiracy theory, and everything it drew into its orbit, resonated strongly with the GOP’s overwhelmingly white base.”

And birtherism, Walsh maintained, was part of “a sustained movement to racialize and marginalize the president—to paint him as siding with African-American cop killers, illegal Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, slutty women who want free birth control, and uppity gay people who demand that Christians bake them wedding cakes—stoked white grievance, especially but not exclusively on the right. Trump’s victory thus represents the culmination of the GOP’s 50-year project to fully racialize electoral politics—to scare an aging, declining white majority into voting as white people in a self-conscious way.”

Though Walsh noted that “Obama’s approval rating among whites [stood at] 63 percent on Inauguration Day” 2009, she added that, in her opinion, “that number reflected white America’s approval of itself for electing a black president more than it reflected an actual embrace of Obama.” In any event, white approval of Obama had dropped considerably by late summer 2009; Walsh attributes the falloff to Obama’s comments on the Henry Louis Gates incident as well as to the impact of the Tea Party movement, “which the mainstream media tried to depict as a backlash against out-of-control government spending [but which] channeled white racial discomfort with the president.”

To Walsh, it’s clear that Obama’s personality and worldview helped him get to the White House but hampered him once he was there (bolding added):

In general, Obama was a moderate who publicly testified to the greatness of American meritocracy because he believed in it, as he was one of its finest products. He succeeded because he had the capacity to make white people feel seen and understood. He gave them the benefit of the doubt about their goodness, and that became a source of his electoral strength—so he was never going to call out the racial animus against him…

Even so—even with this serious, moderate, modulated take on race—Obama provoked a “whitelash.” It’s tempting to say that he wasn’t well served by his optimism about America…A racial and political pessimist might have faced up to Republican obstruction and the white, right-wing backlash earlier and more forcefully. A pessimist might have had less faith in the goodwill of white people and been better prepared for the backlash.

But only a racial optimist could have been elected president.

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