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The Race for the White House

The president’s prospects for re-election have more to do with politics than the color of his skin, writes Sam Fulwood III.

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Given the confusing and crazy history that we Americans seem incapable of rising above, I suppose it was preordained that nearly every conversation about the first black president would devolve to an examination of its racial elements. From the moment then-candidate Barack Obama declared himself a contender for the White House, the ghost of U.S. race history has hovered over him, trying its best drag him into some otherworldly realm.

For better or worst, President Obama is what every president before him was—a very good politician. Nobody gets elected president without being so. As such, President Obama must play the political game as deftly as each of his predecessors did, despite having the racial narrative as a backdrop to his remarkable story. That race-is-everything storyline is a distraction to everyone, save the president who seems to ignore it at all costs. For good reason, too; he can’t afford to be distracted by it, if he expects to win—again.

Still, that doesn’t stop others from throwing down the race card whenever they attempt to discuss whatever he does. It becomes a facile argument, one that provides a simple-minded explanation for a sore-spot subject that most Americans prefer not to think about very deeply. By offering up a race-based explanation to any and all discussion of the president, the illogic of U.S. attitudes toward black and other ethnic success stories can be discharged without much comprehension or reason. After all, there can be no denying that he is, ahem, black.

This is unfortunate largely because the race excuse is often wrong, allowing otherwise intelligent people to be caught up in the maddening web of deception that holds the less informed in a paranoid state of ignorance. A recent case in point is Eleanor Clift’s mistaken post on The Daily Beast. The sometimes-perceptive Clift, an erstwhile Newsweek columnist and now an online blogger, succumbed to the popular delusion of mad crowds, arguing that President Obama is unlikely to face a challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination because—yep, you guessed it—he’s an African American president.

To be fair, Clift didn’t say this in her own voice. Actually, that would be gutsy. Wrong, nonetheless, but courageous on her part to own up to such a ridiculous assertion. Rather, she finds others—pollsters, Democratic insiders, and college professors—to say that no one in the president’s party wants to be “responsible for costing the first African- American president his reelection.”

It’s still early, time enough for some make-a-statement candidate from the far-left fringe of the Democratic Party to get into the race. True enough, some very liberal Americans are disappointed that President Obama hasn’t been the expected champion of their specific causes. And, it’s equally true that the national economy and high unemployment has hit the poor and ethnic minority communities the hardest, creating the appearance of an opening for a strong progressive challenge on president’s left.

Indeed, eternal presidential spoiler and gadfly Ralph Nader has made sotto voce noise about fielding primary challenges to President Obama as a way to push him more to the left. But I don’t think he or any other challengers will ultimately decide to do so—and the reason has little to do with race and everything to do with political reality.

No Democrat can afford to challenge the president in a primary battle. To mount a campaign, even a token one, takes money, lots and lots of money. The president’s re-election effort has vacuumed nearly every dollar to be had for a Democratic candidate.

According to USA Today, President Obama collected more than $47 million from April 1 to June 30 for his campaign. And he’s raised more than $38 million for the Democratic National Committee, which will play a vital part in advertising and churning out voters in 2012.

That vat of money is enough to wash away any primary challenger. More than that, it’s greater than the $34 million all of the GOP candidates collected combined. Why would anyone dare waste their time and energy, along with other people’s money, to be destroyed by a foolhardy attack on a sitting president with the Midas touch in campaign fundraising? As one of my colleagues noted, no Democratic candidate wants to be London to Obama’s Beijing.

So what’s race got to do with this? Nada. President Obama’s re-election campaign shifted gears Monday, kicking off a three-day bus tour through the Midwest to talk about creating jobs. The White House says it is official business. But that doesn’t fool anyone from recognizing it for what it really is: a campaign-style trip that comes in the wake of the GOP straw poll in Iowa, won by Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). In other words, the race for 2012 is engaged and soon, very soon, the airwaves will be filled with campaign commercials.

Then we’ll see what the gross display of campaign fundraising buys, exhibiting pure and raw money-based politics at its best (or depending on your point of view, its worst). The horse-race polling and the money scorecard are the sort of political fodder that Washington pundits like Eleanor Clift gushed over, when all the presidential hopefuls were white men and her mind wasn’t confused by the color of this president’s skin.

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

Senior Fellow

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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)