African-Americans have been an integral part of the White House since it was built in part by slaves. In Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House, veteran U.S. News White House reporter Kenneth T. Walsh traces this sometimes fraught history from its roots all the way to the Barack Obama presidency.
As he began his second year in office, Obama's presidency was not going well. His legislation to overhaul the healthcare system was still bogged down in Congress. The unemployment rate, which polls showed was the top concern of most Americans, remained stubbornly high at about 10 percent, and much worse in many African-American communities. Obama's job-approval ratings had dropped markedly from the astronomical levels of his first few months to below 50 percent.
Adding to his woes, in January 2010 the race issue erupted again in an unusual and unexpected way. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader and an Obama ally, was embarrassed because of some racially insensitive comments he had made to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of a new book, Game Change, about the Obama campaign. It turned out that Reid had predicted in 2008 that Obama could succeed as an African-American presidential candidate partly because he was "light-skinned" and because he didn't speak with a "Negro dialect."
Reid quickly apologized, and many black leaders, including the president and Attorney General Eric Holder, defended him as a decent man who was not a racist. But Republicans tried to score political points, with party chairman Michael Steele and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calling on Reid to resign as majority leader. He refused, but the furor showed how race remained just below the surface of American life. Racial polarization was again on the rise. In January 2010, 96 percent of African-Americans approved Obama's job performance, virtually unchanged from his 100-day mark in April 2009. But whites were losing faith in him, with only 44 percent approving his job performance, compared with 62 percent the previous April, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in January 2010.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said, "I don't think you can find a guy who's done more to try to put this issue [of race] off the table." But McInturff added, "I don't think the press really understands how difficult this guy's position is" because his support among whites was so "precarious." This was largely because the economy was in such distress, and most whites, except perhaps for young people, didn't have a close bond with Obama to begin with.
African-Americans' views on achieving racial equality also were growing more negative, even though black voters remained in strong support of Obama. According to McInturff, only 11 percent of blacks said that African-Americans had reached racial equality, down by 9 percentage points in one year, and 32 percent said equality would not be attained in their lifetimes, up by 9 points. Four in ten whites said African-Americans already had reached racial equality, while 31 percent said it would happen soon.
Obama addressed this pessimism among blacks in an address at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington on January 17, 2010, to mark the holiday devoted to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Calling for patience and pragmatism, the president said, "Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don't want to see that even if we don't get everything, we're getting something. King understood that the desegregation of the armed forces didn't end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn't sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home. But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the armed forces. . . . 'Let's take a victory,' he said, 'and then keep on marching.'"