We've all witnessed the racial backlash to the election of this country's first African American president. What I want to talk about is not the obvious racism of the teapublicans with their birther conspiracies about the Kenyan socialist. There's something more insidiously racial in how the mainstream press covers this President and the effect their analysis has on our conscious as well as unconscious biases.
So what I want to talk about is all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media portrays President Obama as incompetent. Right on cue comes pearl-clutcher-in-chief Peggy Noonan's latest column which she so aptly titles Incompetence. Of course all she's really got to work with is the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov. But boy, does she run with it.
...in recent weeks I have begun to worry about the basic competency of the administration, its ability to perform the most fundamental duties of executive management...You'd be right if you suggested that it is pretty much Peggy Noonan's job to criticize and distort what a Democratic administration is doing. But why focus on the trope of incompetence? Its because that way of looking at a black man already has resonance with herself and her readers. As Jonathan Chait so eloquently wrote recently, our legacy is a racial system "in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person." And so if you are a Republican wanting to discredit this administration among white people who have been programmed their whole lives to see black people as incompetent, the platform is ready-made for you to exploit.
It all looks so lax, so loosey-goosey. In the place of the energy and focus that would go into the running of things, the administering and managing of them, we have the preoccupation with spin, with how things look as opposed to how they are.
Unfortunately, its not just the Peggy Noonan's of the world who peddle this meme. Those who aren't in the business of promoting Republicans often pick it up as well...just more subtly. Yesterday xpostfactoid pointed out one of the ways that happens with an article titled: If only Obama would say what he's never stopped saying. If only he would do what he's done. In it he chronicles how pundits (usually on the left side of the political spectrum) so often give President Obama "advice" about how to say/do things without ever really acknowledging his record. That's another way of dismissing the President's competence.
Perhaps the most insidious way the media reinforces this meme is by suggesting that President Obama is lucky whenever he has successes. This one runs through almost every achievement of his in the last 5+ years. You might remember that it all started when - in the most obviously racial example of all - Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Barack Obama was beating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries because he was lucky enough to be black. Here are a few examples of how its played out since then:
Tim Dickinson on the Obamacare contraception controversy:
If this were a political mistake, Barack Obama seems impossibly lucky to have stumbled into it. Every repercussion is redounding to his favor.Dana Milbank on the economy:
In politics, it’s better to be lucky than good, and Obama has come into an unexpectedly large quantity of luck. Five straight monthly drops in the unemployment rate have boosted consumer confidence and stock markets.Gary Younge on his opponents:
Barack Obama has often been lucky with his enemies...Kevin Drum on the Obama/Romney townhall debate:
Now, as he heads for reelection, he must be saying a prayer every day in thanks for Mitt Romney...
The principal beneficiary would be Obama. The president should be fighting for his life. Instead, he's living on his luck.
He [Obama] let Romney dig himself into an ever deeper hole, and just smiled when Romney tried to get him to directly deny it. This turned out to be either lucky or smart, because it gave Candy Crowley a chance to fact check Romney and confirm that she was there and she heard Obama refer to Benghazi as an act of terror on the very next day.p.m. carpenter on Romney's choice of Paul Ryan:
The choice of Ryan would seem to confirm two perpetual truths about Gov. Romney and President Obama: the latter is the luckiest politician since Reagan, and the former is the worst presidential candidate since Dukakis.Megan McArdle on Syria (this one was repeated by an awful lot of pundits):
But if it does turn out “well,” this will be because the president was lucky, not brilliant.And finally, Chris Cilizza simply opines on how President Obama is generally lucky:
In politics — as in life — it’s better to be lucky than good.Of course that list is not exhaustive, but is meant to give you an idea of the breadth of people making this claim as well as the number of issues to which it has been applied. Its impossible to escape the overall message: this President isn't competent in his accomplishments, he's just lucky.
And, as the last week of the presidential campaign has made clear, President Obama is both — benefitting from a series of political advantageous moments that few could have predicted even a month ago.
Without the racial lens of incompetence, the media might have noticed that this President has had to traverse all kinds of racist minefields that are simply ignored by this kind of analysis. After we've taken that into account, how about recognizing that he took office when we were involved in two wars and suffering from the worst recession since the 1940's? Upon taking office, he faced the most partisan obstructionism we've seen in our lifetimes.
To do that would be to recognize that this black man is one of the most competent people to have ever held the office of President. And that would be to presume that he is equal to - or, heaven forbid, better than - a whole host of white guys.