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Obama and the race card, a preemptive play

Why did Barack Obama decide last week to “play the race card,” predicting that his political opponents would try to scare voters by pointing out that he doesn’t look like the presidents on our paper money? Obama’s move wasn’t well calculated to help him. As a general rule, the first candidate to talk about race comes off the loser, and that seemed particularly likely here, where much of Obama’s original appeal stemmed from the idea that he was “post-racial.” Sure enough, it’s widely agreed that Obama was the loser in this flap.

So why did he do it?

One theory is that he felt frustrated that the bounce he thought he would get from his trip abroad was already fading, and frustrated generally that he wasn’t pulling decisively away from McCain. Another theory is that the “race card” is something Obama fears as a general matter, and that the fear simply bubbles up into in public utterances from time to time. After all, this wasn’t the first time Obama had made such a remark.

Given the timing of this utterance, though, it’s possible that Obama was making a calculated bid to take certain legitimate race-related issues off the table. Obama made the remark about not looking like other presidents on Wednesday, July 30. During the previous weekend, McCain had said, in response to a question on one of the talk shows, that he supported a referendum in Arizona banning the state from engaging in racial preferences. Obama opposes this and other similarly worded propositions. As I argued here, McCain is on the popular side of this issue.

That same weekend, Obama had told a group of minority journalists that “whether it’s Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.” Although Obama in the past has studiously opposed monetary reparations as compensation for slavery, his statement to the journalists could easily be construed as opening that door, leaving Obama on the unpopular side of another race-related issue.

Perhaps, then, Obama was attempting to preempt McCain and/or McCain’s supporters from attacking Obama on two hot-button issues — racial preferences and reparations — where he sensed new vulnerability.

Did it work? At one level, probably not. As noted, Obama lost the battle that ensued. And having cried wolf once with regard to his race, Obama may be hard-pressed successfully to cry it again if McCain raises legitimate issues of public policy pertaining to race.

On the other hand, McCain could reasonably believe he won last week’s battle because it was obvious that he has steered clear of racial issues. This may reinforce McCain’s desire (as I see it) not to “go there” even with respect to legitimate issues.

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