Political Animal


August 29, 2012 3:32 PM Affirmative Action Baby

By Ed Kilgore

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a brief meditation on the meme of Obama as the “Affirmative Action President” at Atlantic today, and it’s worth some additional commentary. After noting Karl Rove’s claim that white voters who had given Obama a chance in 2008 would now turn against him as a “failed experiment,” he suggests:

It’s a familiar echo which goes all the way back to calls for Obama’s college transcripts. What Republicans have yet to come to terms with is that Obama — race aside — is a formidable politician. You hear echoes of the early days of the integration of black athletes into the sports world, when white racists would contort themselves trying to understand how, exactly, someone like Jack Johnson had prevailed. It’s very hard for Rove and his allies to get their heads around the fact that they got thumped in 2008 by an Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. Some scheme must be afoot.

I’d say it goes even deeper than that, and is only partly about race. Conservatives are deeply invested in the idea that there is a “natural” majority supporting their policies. So 2008—the first time a Democratic candidate had won a majority of the popular vote since 1976—came as a big shock. Part of their reaction involved the revisionist argument that Obama’s victory was not a defeat for conservatism, because Bush had “abandoned his conservative principles” and/or John McCain never really had them. Others indulged themselves in the fabulist theory of an ACORN-driven “stolen election.”

But an even more common theory has been that Obama won because he was black and thus benefited from (a) a historically large and overwhelmingly Democratic minority vote, (b) a higher-than-deserved white vote based on the idea that a Black President could bury racial animosities, and (c) kid-glove media treatment. The very nature of this line of “reasoning” suggested Obama was getting the kind of big thumb on the scales that conservatives often think minority folk get in all kinds of otherwise competitive contexts.

Some conservative gabbers, of course, have gone right over the brink and argued that Obama has always been an “affirmative action baby” who would be some dope-sucking street punk if he hadn’t always gotten favorable treatment. The most famous argument along these lines was offered by The American Thinker’s Matt Patterson in 2011, in a piece entitled “The Affirmative Action President.” Here are a couple of bites from that toxic stew:

Obama himself was never troubled by his lack of achievements, but why would he be? As many have noted, Obama was told he was good enough for Columbia despite undistinguished grades at Occidental; he was told he was good enough for the US Senate despite a mediocre record in Illinois; he was told he was good enough to be president despite no record at all in the Senate. All his life, every step of the way, Obama was told he was good enough for the next step, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. What could this breed if not the sort of empty narcissism on display every time Obama speaks?….
In short: our president is a small and small-minded man, with neither the temperament nor the intellect to handle his job. When you understand that, and only when you understand that, will the current erosion of liberty and prosperity make sense. It could not have gone otherwise with such a man in the Oval Office.

The cretinous Howie Carr of the Boston Herald has played this theme monotonously, but it’s popped up episodically all over conservative-land, particularly in the bizarre supposition that Obama is uniquely dependent on teleprompters (a way of discounting his eloquence).

It’s part and parcel of the Right’s general inability to make a case against Obama based on what he actually says and does, which is pretty remarkable. He can’t be what he appears to be to most liberals: a center-left politician who is very much in the Clinton tradition, who really would prefer to attract some Republican support, and often compromises his own positions before he offers them. No, he’s a secret Alinskyite who dreams of turning America into Sweden, hates Christianity, and despises the private sector (which is why, no doubt, he chose to make private insurance companies the vehicle for his “socialist” health care plan, rejected calls for nationalization of big banks at the height of the financial crisis, and preferred a market-based cap-and-trade system for dealing with carbon emissions instead of command-and-control regulation).

And this determination to turn Obama into some sort of minstrel-show caricature is why the “affirmative action” meme implicitly endorsed by the likes of Karl Rove has such a nasty undertone: You, white Americans, tried to give those people a chance, but you know what? They turned out to be exactly what you always suspected, even in that half-black, cleaned-up, over-educated version named Barack Obama! So screw ‘em!

So if people like me sometimes seem a mite sensitive to the possibility that massively distributed ads suggesting without evidence that Obama is stealing from old white people to give money to lazy welfare bums could represent a racial appeal, that could be why. Coates is right: it infuriates people like Rove that their conservative-majority-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see was derailed in 2008 by this Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. They can’t believe he beat them fair and square, so they’ll say he’s predictably failed in hopes that they can get the course of history back on track.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TCinLA on August 29, 2012 3:49 PM:

    The one amusing thing about all white supremacists is how their existence demonstrates white inferiority.

    We commonly say that the one thing invented in America that happened nowhere else is jazz - created by black people. That's not accurate; there is one other thing invented here first: white supremacy. By white Americans.

    Black Americans create jazz, white Americans...

  • Ronald on August 29, 2012 3:49 PM:

    I liked this. Agree fully.
    The line Rove and co. were pushing last election was 'If you elect the Black Man the world will end, or at least the US as we know it will be destroyed! DOOM!!!!'

    Obviously, this not only didn't happen, but the US has managed (a feeble) recovery from the worst economic crisis the Republicans pulled over on the country since the Great Depression.

    And so they're trying even harder this year with the 'No really. Obama is eeeeeevil!'

    That pig won't fly, and the more they make it squeal, the less appealing that argument will become.

    Fuck, its still only August and they're pulling these things out.
    What is going to happen come October?

    capthell: yorkshire twateen. really?

  • dalloway on August 29, 2012 3:52 PM:

    Which is why, though it's a remote possibility, I want to see a landslide for Obama and Democrats that lights their racist, entitled hair on fire. These far right extremists are an endangered species and deserve to be.

  • Mad_nVt on August 29, 2012 3:55 PM:

    Excellent post, and right on target.

    Add in the underlying conservative attitude that a Democratic presidency is illegitimate.

    Thus the dismissive tone toward Clinton and Obama.

    If there is only one true path to the future, conservatism and GOP, then the Democrats are automatically illegitimate.

    Kind of like the Catholic Church ("the one true Church") and many evangelical churches.

    Maybe conservatism could be viewed as a religion.

  • Amanda on August 29, 2012 3:56 PM:

    Small correction: The Democratic candidate won a majority of the popular vote in 2000.

  • lou on August 29, 2012 4:00 PM:

    Thanks Ed. You connect the dots like few others can. And there are a hell of a lot of dots lining up and pointing directly to Mitt Romney. Not sure anyone has yet authored the grand vision of the man, how it all relates to the moment, how it all ties the plutocrats together, how it all really adds up. But you seem to be getting pretty damned close. And I am getting mighty pissed. My TV might have telepathically exploded yesterday evening.

  • davidp on August 29, 2012 4:02 PM:

    Ed's really killing it today. Awesome.

  • j on August 29, 2012 4:06 PM:

    And as Romney parties with his big donors on a luxury
    yacht flying the Cayman Islands flag, if Obama did this FOX and the republicans would be on a rampage for days.

  • threegoal on August 29, 2012 4:07 PM:

    Comment to Amanda: gore beat Bush by more than 500,000 popular votes (about 3 times the amount by which Kennedy beat Nixon), but he came in just under 50% thanks mainly to Nader.

  • LJL on August 29, 2012 4:09 PM:

    This election campaign is the last stand for the evil White Tribe. Thankfully they are a dying demographic and for them to win the White House in November they will need to muster a solid 61% of the white vote or through a combination of non-white voter disenfranchisement and white votes overwhelm the ballot boxes. The American White Tribe, rooted as it is in the systematic thief and genocide of native America, is probably history's most vile expression of racism. And now it is hysterically fighting to keep its hands on its ill gotten gains. This is why they are viciously attacking President Obama with unfounded racist slurs..

  • kabiddle on August 29, 2012 4:11 PM:

    Thank you.

  • c u n d gulag on August 29, 2012 4:17 PM:

    They're acting like rabid sewer rats, precisely because they know they've cornered themselves by not accounting changing demographics.

    Right now, 0% of blacks support Romney. And the only Hispanics likely to vote for them, are Cuban. They're also losing women.

    After this election, if they're going to win in the next Presidential election, they'll need some other people besides 60% of white voters, especially their real core constituency - white male voters who don't have college degrees. And doesn't seem likely.

    They needed a Republican to win the Presidency this year, and to regain control of Congress, to make it easier to suppress the votes of minorities and women in the future elections, and guarantee virtual one-party rule for decades to come.

    Right now, they are as hysterically scared, as they are dangerous. They can see the writing on the wall.

    They've cornered themsleves demographically by deciding to follow 'The Southern Strategy' to its conclusion. And now, they have no choice but 'to dance with the ones who brung 'em' - even if that dance is in a mosh pit with White Supremacists.

    A Cruz victory in TX will help them have someone else in leadership who's Hispanic besides Rubio (and NM's woman governor, Martinez). But again, both of them are Cuban-Americans - a group not exactly beloved by other Hispanics.

    If asked right now, I'd predict a Ryan-Rubio, or Ryan-Cruz, ticket in 2016.
    Or, if Ryan's star falls, then VA Governor, Bob McDonnell, "The Vaginator," may be at the head of the ticket.

    Republicans will still be a formidable political force for a decade or so to come - but, without some fundamental changes in it's racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic philoaophies, one that's dying out, just like it's core constituency: older white people.

  • exlibra on August 29, 2012 4:24 PM:

    [...] empty narcissism on display every time Obama speaks. -- Matt Patterson (whoever he may be), as quoted by Ed Kilgore

    That bit had my jaw hit the floor with a loud thump. Are we talking about the same person??? Because Obama I'm familiar with is so bloody self-effacing, he could be a Brit. Good grief! Ed, I have no idea how you can read that sort of effluvium without passing out from the stench.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on August 29, 2012 4:25 PM:

    If Barack Obama is an "affirmative action baby", what exactly is Artur Davis???? Serious question. How do the GOPers distinguish between affirmative action blacks and non-affirmative action blacks? Is there a whiff test for token-negro-ism or something?

  • DJ on August 29, 2012 4:36 PM:

    Or, if Ryan's star falls, then VA Governor, Bob McDonnell, "The Vaginator," may be at the head of the ticket.

    Gov. Ultrasound? Don't be idiotic.

  • nuts and rocks on August 29, 2012 4:40 PM:

    That "base" to which all these people pander is grossly spoiled before an election, and promptly forgotten after.

  • LAC on August 29, 2012 5:00 PM:

    Ed, you rock! I have been saying this for a few years, but not as smoothly as you have. And kudos for having to read and quote that drivel by Patterson. If I had to read shite like that, I might just punch a white guy "accidently". :)

  • c u n d gulag on August 29, 2012 5:01 PM:

    I'd be negligent if I didn't tell you how great this post was.
    One of your very, very best.

    And yeah, you're right, after 30-40 years of Conservatism ascending, they started believing their own bullsh*t, and still can't believe they got beat 'by the little black engine that could' - AND DID!!!

  • Peter C on August 29, 2012 5:08 PM:

    This is one of Rove's more idiotic attacks. It is not hard to ascertain that Obama is very intelligent. You just need to listen to him for a little while and you can tell. Contrast that with Rick Perry or George Bush; they both quickly demonstrated their lack of intellectual firepower. Even Republicans recognized that.

    In short, this sort of attack works only with the willfully self-deluded and the exceptionally stupid - the sort of people who buy the 'believe me and not your lying eyes' pitch. It's the sort of attack which works for the Republican base, but I think it fails with the average American. Obama is bright and poised and unflappable; it's a hard sell to convince people he's actually Jerry Lewis in blackface. Saying he's 'over his head' feels like a lie when he never acts at a loss.

  • Irony on August 29, 2012 5:14 PM:

    You know, there's Romney, as if Royalty Personified, barely peeking his head out at the convention, having room service meals,--so he comes out to high five his Queen, and decides to be seen at such a ridiculously poor time, on camera,-- and--obviously annoyed while Chris Christie bloviates. I thought those camera shots of Romney sitting through Christie's speech diminished Romney further and showed his poor judgment.
    Romney can't run a campaign, he can't run a convention.
    And God help us Romney cannot run the government.

    Like the signs above them read for all to see and feel the irony:

    The national debt: $16 Trillion/We built it!!!!!!!!!!!

    ANY conscious voter should be aware they built that debt when Republicans held the presidency 2000 -2008.

    (Where IS George W Bush? Bueller? Anyone?)

  • threegoal on August 29, 2012 5:17 PM:

    TCinLA said:

    That's not accurate; there is one other thing invented here first: white supremacy. By white Americans.

    While there has been way too much of it, we didn't invent white supremacy. It came over with the British and then many other white immigrants, especially when they ranked below the prevalent white majority but above the blacks. Plus, there was always that racist German dictator off the 30s and 40s, and I don't think he got his ideas from white Americans.

    What's more, you can travel to other parts of the world and find plenty of racism involving nonwhite people that are convinced they are superior to other nonwhite people. It's a human failing.

    That said, I agree with what Ed said and a lot of what the other commentators said. It's wrong, it's ugly, and it's something that all humans have to fight, including in themselves.

  • R on August 29, 2012 7:05 PM:

    Great post, Ed. Let's not forget Romney's characterization of Obama's campaign as "angry," either. Fits right in with the meme.

    It continues to astound me that these people can't even concede the President's obvious intelligence. College transcripts? Seriously? Whatever you think about his policies, isn't it obvious pretty much every time he opens his mouth that the guy is wicked smart? Funny too -- remember this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi6JRvJDAKw ? (Just don't even look at the other video titles that show up.) Shows how deep racist resentment runs, I guess.

  • James M on August 29, 2012 9:16 PM:

    I will hop on the 'great post' bandwagon!

    One of the most insightful pundit comments I read concerned the fundamental contradiction in the conservative attacks on President Obama. On the one hand he is a weak, unqualified and not-too-bright wimp. On the other hand, he is the Machiavellian captain of the George Soros funded black helicopter supported diabolical plot to forcibly install 'world government' on an unknowing American populace.

    Since the right wing can't seem to focus on one meme they trumpet both simultaneously. Many pundits have commented on the uncanny ability of right wingers to hold two diametrically opposed beliefs at the same time (as exemplified by the Tea Party members).

  • E.Hatt-Swank on August 29, 2012 9:31 PM:


    Just wanted to say this is beautifully written and spot-on. One doesn't have to wade very far into the muck of right-wing blogs and such before one encounters the Affirmative Action President theme .. and it never fails to blow my mind. It further freaks me out that to these folks Obama's idiocy/incompetence/etc. is so obvious that they don't even feel the need to try to make the case. Unbelievable.

  • yellowdog on August 29, 2012 10:13 PM:

    The attacks on Obama's religion, on his birth certificate, on his purported lack of patriotism, and on his associations with folks like Ayers all draw water from the same poisoned well. Calling Obama an affirmative action president is just one more way of taking away his legitimacy as a candidate and as a leader.

    If anything, Obama and his team should be very familiar with these sorts of attacks by now. All of them are rehashed and reheated from 2008--and they will need to dent Obama's credibility with people now who were not bothered by them four years ago. In tandem with the false welfare attacks, they might sway some voters. Romney likes the welfare lies because they are 'new information' about Obama.

    Problem is, though, Romney's basic approval ratings are not budging--and he is not an easy person to cast as a savior of ordinary working people, of any race. Taking cruises on yachts registered in the Caymans tends to undercut the regular-guy appeal... Ann Romney is supposed to help--but it is not an easy or natural message for her either. These are -not- regular folk--and their attempts to play regular folk fall flat because they are not convincing at it.

    The rich are different--isn't that what Randians believe after all? The air of natural superiority bleeds through. In Rand-world, the wealthy and industrious are superior because their place in the capitalist order has proven them superior. They built it...they proved their worth, in dollars and cents. The market is a perfect moral arbiter. It's not Lake Wobegone--every child in Rand-world is not above average. The successful are inherently better than the non-successful. If there are winners, there have to be losers. And, wow, what losers now populate our society. What better way to make the case for this moral vision of the world than to point to the distortions of the 'natural' order of things represented in affirmative action? Obama stands for all the losers, those who corrupt the natural hierarchy of society. Obama is out of his place. He has gotten uppity in the words of one Congressman (my own, I regret to say). He has gotten above himself. He is mingling with his betters.

    This is the GOP vision right now. We are not all created equal. The capitalist system will sort us out efficiently as to rights and to basic human worth. If you are worthy, you can vote and join the club. If you are not worthy, ashes will be heaped on your head. If you are poor, it is because you deserve to be poor. You did not build it. You did not try. Ipso facto - you are a loser. Further, you will always be a loser. (And you will try to steal elections, join unions for benefits you did not earn or deserve, and you will always ask government to subsidize your sorriness.)

    Just think, though, of what this moral view makes of the struggling middle class--what a bleak vision this is for them, for people who are trying harder than ever. Is their failure because they are unworthy? Is their worth at issue? Rand would say yes. Of course Romney and Co. want to blame the problems of the middle class on welfare and affirmative action. If the middle class got a whiff of what the Rand-reading yacht-riding class really thinks of them--in Randian clarity--it would be pitchforks for Mitt. In Randworld, you are measured by what you earn. Your net worth is your moral worth. If you are not earning enough, it is because you are unworthy. You lack something. Your economic problems are your own damn fault.

    No wonder Mitt wants to talk about welfare...

  • Reggie Greene / The Logistician on October 01, 2012 9:26 AM:

    There are many complexities associated with affirmative action programs and policies. However, one issue which we continually ignore, as is the case with most government related programs and initiatives, is whether it is effective in addressing past wrongs. Think about this: How many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs have actually shared their good fortune with other members of their particular ethnic group, as opposed to using their increased opportunities and wealth to distance themselves from the masses of minority citizens? http://tinyurl.com/3gw6lkp