How Gov. Brewer Actually Helped President Obama

Sam Fulwood III explains why Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s disrespectful gesture last week will motivate black voters to support the president in the November election.

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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer points her finger in the face of President Barack Obama during an intense conversation at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer points her finger in the face of President Barack Obama during an intense conversation at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

With a waggle of her right index finger last Wednesday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer erased the question of whether black voters will be enthusiastic about going to the polls in support of President Barack Obama. Now, you can count on it.

Gov. Brewer almost guaranteed that large numbers of black voters will turn out on Election Day because they will march to the polls, still angry about Brewer’s one-finger salute of the commander-in-chief. Nothing motivates voters like anger. So I envision their collective disgust to register in a wave of ballots, striking back at what so many perceive as the ultimate disrespect of the nation’s first black president.

This isn’t a bold prediction. Rather, it’s more of a reasonable assessment of what I’m hearing and reading about the durability of the anger over the now-infamous tarmac photo. As if the picture didn’t convey an outrageous message greater than 1,000 words uttered by a campaign opponent, Gov. Brewer doubled down on the prickly image to say that she poked her finger in the president’s face because she felt threatened by the audacity of that black man dressing her down over comments she wrote about him.

Indeed, I’m willing to be charitable on Gov. Brewer’s behalf. For sure, she could never have envisioned how that split-second of her life under an Arizona sun, captured on pixels and set loose into the blogosphere, would reverberate in communities of color across the land. She probably (and accurately) expected it would help with sales of her book among conservatives who hate President Obama, but it also made her a subject of derisions, jokes, and ridicule among progressives in general and the black community in particular. And once a politician becomes the enduring butt of jokes, it’s nearly impossible to repair the damage. Just ask Sarah Palin, who remains a force only among the far right.

Clearly, Gov. Brewer didn’t know at that fateful moment how so many black Americans react to such gestures. No doubt she didn’t know or care that many of us would decipher hidden meanings in her gesture or comments. Maybe she meant no malice. But whatever crossed Gov. Brewer’s mind, she came off as disrespectful and clueless to black voters who are proud and protective of the president. And they will make her pay for being ignorant of their concerns and cavalier of their fears.

The White House, however, tried to downplay the entire incident. The president called it "no big deal.” But of course he would say that and take the high road, while his political operatives made sure the real message was heard in black barbershops, beauty parlors, and churches. That’s where the real political conversations among black voters are vetted, charged, and sustained.

I’m hearing an earful, nearly all of it anger at the perception of unfairness in the way the president (and his wife) are publicly portrayed. The Brewer photo only exacerbated the already-simmering feelings that started with Tea Party activists’ racist signs, were perpetuated by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson’s outburst, and continued with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s rude comments about the callipygian attributes of the First Lady’s figure.

Lots of chatter circulates in media accounts of whether President Obama can motivate black voters this November as he did in 2008. He probably can’t. The drama and enthusiasm surrounding the election of the nation’s first black president can never be replicated. But it won’t have to be this time around. Pride has been displaced by anger. Any lingering doubts about commitment and energy for President Obama’s re-election among black voters is now moot.

Jan Brewer, thank you very much.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)