[Top aide] Valerie Jarrett told me, "I think at the time of his victory, there was an enormous amount of historical significance to this country being able to elect a person who was African-American as president. I think that there are probably people who still see him as an African-American president favorably and unfavorably. But the vast majority of people, I think, see him as their president. I think that because he inherited such a crisis on all fronts—two wars, an economic meltdown, a fiscal meltdown, the largest deficit in our nation's history, and a health crisis, energy crisis, education crisis, confidence crisis around the world—because of this extraordinary moment in history when he stepped in, I don't think there has been a lot of time to focus on his race. People just want to know, 'Are you going to be able to improve the quality of my life?'"
But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent "Tea Party" movement that was then surging across the country. Many middle-class and working-class whites felt aggrieved and resentful that the federal government was helping other groups, including bankers, automakers, irresponsible people who had defaulted on their mortgages, and the poor, but wasn't helping them nearly enough, he said.
A guest suggested that when Tea Party activists said they wanted to "take back" their country, their real motivation was to stir up anger and anxiety at having a black president, and Obama didn't dispute the idea. He agreed that there was a "subterranean agenda" in the anti-Obama movement—a racially biased one—that was unfortunate. But he sadly conceded that there was little he could do about it.
His goal, he said, was to be as effective and empathetic a president as possible for all Americans. If he could accomplish that, it would advance racial progress for blacks more than anything else he could do.
The excerpt selected originally appeared in Kenneth T. Walsh's Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House (Boulder, Colo.: © Paradigm Publishers 2010). Permission granted courtesy of Paradigm Publishers.