President Obama’s Base is Not Just White Progressives

Ishmael Reed has a very important piece on some recent political attacks on President Obama, especially by certain white progressives. After explaining how often his teachers in school considered him a discipline problem, and how more recently his articles have sometimes been characterized as “rowdy,” he discusses the attacks on President Obama by these mostly white progressives:

Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right. One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama.

Why are these calls for Obama to “man up” rather problematical:

What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years.

If Obama ever appeared like Harry Truman or John Wayne did he would of course be very strongly attacked and dismissed as an “angry black man.” He will be caught in the very negative white racial framing of black men if he ever moves in that direction. Reed also points out the white liberals’ racist framing of who the “base” is that President Obama is supposedly alienating:

When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos. And now they are whispering about a primary challenge against the president. Brilliant! The kind of suicidal gesture that destroyed Jimmy Carter — and a way to lose the black vote forever.

Very important insights indeed, yet this appears to be the first post in the mainstream media that notes that President Obama’s black and Latino (and I would guess Asian American and Native American) base is not slipping much. And Reed notes why:

Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.

In our book, Yes We Can? Adia and I also assessed the great importance of candidate Obama’s “cool” approach (“Will Smith” approach) thus:

Given his unusual biography, newness on the political scene, and African-origin name, candidate Obama was well aware that the political odds were against him. He also knew that it was imperative that he present himself in a way that would be palatable to many voters, especially nonblack voters, given that he was not then a familiar figure to most in the U.S. electorate. Obama thus attempted to counter the way that his opponents depicted him using the old hard racial framing. His “cool strategy” enabled him to avoid many of the gendered-racist representations of black masculinity that are part of the white racist frame— the “angry black man,” “buddy,” or “sidekick”—because those would render him unpresidential. What he could do was maintain this cool strategy in which he was consistently unruffled, poised, and in control at all times. In this fashion he could still embody the gendered (and implicitly white) characteristics many people ascribe to presidents— that is, being assertive, in control, and decisive—without crossing the line into being angry or threatening. Establishing himself as someone with a typical American story, with a normal nuclear family, who was cool under pressure … was an approach that worked well for him in the national political sphere.


  1. Heavy Armor

    “If Obama ever appeared like Harry Truman or John Wayne did he would of course be very strongly attacked and dismissed as an “angry black man.” He will be caught in the very negative white racial framing of black men if he ever moves in that direction.”

    Then there should be a very simple answer to this missive below if Reed is correct (Which he is not, BTW):

    Who would attack Obama as being an “Angry Black Man”? Has Obama’s attempts at appeasement stopped Sarah Palin from calling Obama a coward and attacking Michelle with racial slurs? Has Obama’s cool detachment stopped Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh from calling Obama “Racist Against White People” and “Having a Deep-Seated Hatred of White People?” Has Obama’s outright refusal of addressing issues that affect Black Americans directly stopped Rep. Steve King and his ilk from declaring the FDA’s settlement to Black & Native American farmers “Obama’s attempt to pay slavery reparations to Black people?” Has Obama’s refusal to stand behind people like Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod or groups like ACORN kept the GOP from calling him names like “The Urban President?”

    Has any of this stopped the Tea Party’s caricature of Obama and his policies from being characterized as White Slavery? Or the distribution pictures of things like the Watermelon Patch on the White House lawn and “Obama Bucks”? Or the Witch Doctor posters? Or the Michelle Looks Like a Monkey email? Or the screams of Socialist/Marxist/Nazist? Or the Obama gatherings where the (mostly White Male) demonstrators outside were carrying Guns?

    Has Obama’s behavior halted the threats against Obama’s family? Or reduced the number of people who buy guns against the non-existent threat Obama posed to their interpretation of the 2nd Amendment?

    The “Angry Black Man” that people perceive Obama is attempting to shy away from is a case of wishful thinking. There is absolutely nothing Obama can do that would make White Privilege and White Racial Framing change their tune of either Obama himself, his family, or Black People in General. Those who defend WP or WRF will not be satisfied until Obama is ousted from the White House and one of their own is back in. These are the people who call Obama “Angry” even when he does not display any. But he will be attacked nonetheless. And it will not stop.

    • meerjungfrau

      Heavy Armor, I agree with your conclusion. What I thought was Obama could only become president by mustering a turnout that would surpass the votes he could not going to get.Most of the people think that most American voters are white, and they want to be able to relate to their president.So Obama better stay away from that. But I cannot help thinking that if Obama wants to go down as a great president, though, he may have to discover the political value of rage.

  2. Joe, I’m sorry, but I read Ishmael Reed’s article earlier today and found it to be ludicrous.

    It seemed to be making excuses for President Obama on the basis of his race.

    And I guess you’re doing the same.

    Black progressives, white progressives, Latino progressives, and every other kind of progressive and/or liberal is sick and fed up with President Obama’s failure to fight for the things that were in his platform when he ran for office.

    He ran as a progressive candidate, and he got huge support from the poor and working class of this country, and it was largely progressives who traveled, knocked on doors, handed out leaflets, phonebanked, and contributed money.

    He’s betrayed us all.

    It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with race.

    You and Reed are the racists, here, bringing up race as an excuse for lousy job performance.

    Sorry, but this guy had an ivy league education, and grew up in a safe environment.

    He has no excuse for his failure.

  3. Joe

    The key point that Ishmael Reed is making is that almost all progressive analysts are assuming that the only “base” that is important for Obama is his white progressive base. Why do these progressives they explicitly or implicitly assume that?

  4. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    @ Heavy – You’re referring to conservatives. You’re right that his coolness hasn’t shielded him from their race-paranoia. If you’ll notice, though, all the attacks you reference occurred when he took a step out of racial bounds. Beck’s comments come after the Crowley-Gates debacle, and King’s attack came after Obama’s acknowledging institutionalized and intentional racism. And I’m pretty sure Palin calls him a coward when it comes to foreign affairs. And let’s not forget, all three of them are idiots.

    Not to say that some attacks, like “taxes=white slavery,” have anything to do with Obama’s walking the racial tight-rope. Attacks like that would come and will continue to come from people who’re uncomfortable with a black president regardless of his/her policy. And let’s not forget, these are the people who make up the base of the previously referenced idiots.

    I think Reed’s point is that if Obama turned “angry black man,” white liberals and progressives would respond . . . negatively, shall we say. I think Reed is talking about the left, not the right. But to your point, it seems there’s no pleasing them, either. (cf: RayBeckerman’s comments above)

    In the end, I think both you and Reed are right. Plus, I really dig you and don’t want on your bad side.

    @ RayBeckerman – I don’t want this to be the beginning of an adversarial relationship; but I do disagree. Don’t misunderstand, I know several black progressives who are too through with Obama. But check the polls. Even from the black progressives I know who’re fed up with Obama’s compromising, I haven’t heard the word “betrayal.” So on that point, Reed is correct.

    In addition, Obama didn’t campaign as a progressive. I listened to just about every speech he made during both the primary and general elections. I never got the impression that he would govern as the progressive version of George W Bush. I think that’s part of the problem: perception. I’m not sure what white progressives saw and/or heard in his speeches that made them think he would govern any differently than he has. Granted, I am making a distinction between his personal views and his governing/legislating style. So if white progressives got the impression that he personally is more progressive than not, I understand. But if you got the impression that he wouldn’t negotiate and compromise with conservatives, I’m not sure you did your due diligence in terms of candidate research.

    Also, tea pots think he’s been a failure as a president. They think he’s creeping us towards socialism. Would that he were! Right? Meanwhile, white progressives are calling him a failure, too. Now really. You both can’t be right, but you can both be wrong.

    It’s not even been two years, yet. Calm down. According to, of the promises where some action has been taken (as opposed to stalled or in the works or “not yet rated”), he’s kept 123 out of 186. That’s 66%. Of the other 63 promises that he has not kept, he’s only broken 24. He compromised on 39.

    Objectively looking at the numbers, for the week Nov 29 – Dec 5, according to the gallup poll he polls at 78% for all Dems, 83% for all liberal Dems. When broken down by race (regardless of party), he polls at 89% for blacks, 58% for Latinos and 37% for whites. (

    To be sure, that was prior to the tax cut deal, but white progressives have felt “betrayed” since just after he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act. I can’t imagine the tax-cut deal taking him from 83% for liberal Dems, down to 49%. So maybe white progressives register as “pure independents” where his approval rating is 36%. I seriously doubt every pure independent was a white progressive. Similarly, I doubt every white progressive told the pollster they were pure independents. On the other hand, perhaps not every white progressives polled as a liberal democrat and vice verse. Even under those circumstances, there’s just no indication that white progressive rate him below 50%. That’s not to say they don’t, only that the polls don’t show that.

    Approval rating by race? Point to Reed.

    So, I have to amend your assertion that progressives feel betrayed to white progressives feel betrayed and would consider him a failure. That’s a matter of opinion I guess. But in light of the number of promises his made and kept, that’s a pretty hard case to make.

    Just so everything’s on the table, here’s how politifact tabulates their results:

    The Obameter Scorecard
    Promise Kept 123
    Compromise 39
    Promise Broken 24
    Stalled 85
    In the Works 232
    Not yet rated 3

    So, not quite 2 years in, Obama has addressed 44% of the promises he made. The other 56% (55.99%) are in the works. Of the 186 promises that have been addressed, he’s kept 66%. He’s only broken 13%. He compromised 21%. A short list of his accomplishments so far would included: passing Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act; preventing a depression; ending combat in Iraq; expanding medicare and S-CHIP and general access to health insurance; and, passing the strongest financial regulation in at least 30 years.

    With all that in mind and considering the extent of opposition, both in Congress and among voters, I really need someone to explain to me how Obama’s betrayed progressives and been such a failture. What has he done or failed to do that would justify such malaise among white progressives? In what ways has he done a “lousy” job?

    And I didn’t get into the ways I think the movement failed him.

    So, let’s sum this up. Reed is correct. Neither he, nor Joe, nor myself, for that matter, are using race as an excuse for Obama. He’s not the one who needs an excuse.

    • Joe

      Excellent data and overview. Thanks for summarizing those data. The point you made previously about why do so many white progressives attack him more than they do the extreme reactionary Republicans who have blocked many of the things he wanted to do, is still quite relevant. I also agree there is no excusing some of his compromising actions, that we can all fault. But I also agree the bigger problem is how wimpy the (especially white) progressives are on these matters. Where are the regular political/progressive marches on Washington on these progressive issues?

      • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

        I also agree there is no excusing some of his compromising actions, that we can all fault. But I also agree the bigger problem is how wimpy the (especially white) progressives are on these matters. Where are the regular political/progressive marches on Washington on these progressive issues?

        Yes! Exactly! With few exceptions, I can’t give him all this blame; not when I feel like the self-proclaimed progressive base is at least partially at fault as well.

      • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

        I would’ve said this earlier but was trying to keep my comment short(er). I just wonder if they’re coming from the WRF and so are demanding Obama be twice as good to earn their approval. Or, if it’s just that Obama’s race makes him an easy and ready target from progressive frustrations.

        Excellent data and overview. Thanks for summarizing those data.

        Thanks for the compliment. Actually, I dig going through data to make sense of what would otherwise be abstractions. That is, I enjoy going through data after someone else has compiled it! LOL! I strongly considered majoring in sociology until I saw the math and methodology requirements.

    • meerjungfrau

      Thanks for the comment.I agree with you that Obama did not campaign as a progressive. All the data you indicated above about the percentages about Obama and the achivements he has made so far could be a guide for us to think he’s been succesfull. And you seem to make a good point about perceptions since these data still not enough for some to agree that he has not failed.

  5. island girl in a land without sea

    i did a small ethnographic study of african american male graduate teaching assistants at a predominantly white institution. nearly all of them spoke of being, as one man put it, “on a short leash” — they felt constrained by negative stereotypes about black men, and the desire NOT to play into those stereotypes compelled them to alter their behavior toward students in ways that white TAs do not usually have to do. the black TAs spoke of exercising caution when dealing with white female students and, as ismael reed pointed out in his NYT op-ed, having to think twice about showing anger and enacting an authoritative role, lest they be accused of being an “angry black man,” or being “uppity” and having their right to be authoritative questioned by a student with an entitlement complex. the black TAs were hardly irrational in their feelings and reactions — they altered their behavior after receiving feedback from student evaluations and faculty assessments. thus, it rings true that president obama has cultivated a calm persona — lots of us POC have less latitude to speak and act frankly and must alter our behavior in ways that white people seem to take for granted, so we can (try to) avoid the painful consequences of reinforcing negative stereotypes.

    (yes, i know that the leash reference is problematic. however, the analogy is from a study participant, and it does evoke a particularly vivid image. the phrase is his wording, not mine.)

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I love all the discussion above.

    Here are some things I have been grappling with, which goes on back into the elections. A libertarian had predicted the same outcome regarding the handling of Wall Street, the handling of the stimulus package, etc., would result in the same outcome regardless of whose president as even, “Obama has sold his soul” regardless of how he campaigns and what he says. Those in the margins who came out and did much work placed their vote on Obama’s promise of “change” on Capital Hill and in the White House…though some realistically feared that there was only so much he could do as president–regardless of what he says or how he campaigns.

    Those who invested time into politics during this last election, especially first time voters and voters who’ve given up on politics, and those from the margins have every right to voice their frustrations. They were counting on “change” in politics. With the Wall Street bail outs, etc., and agreeing to an extension on the tax to the rich, etc., those are not small matters. Where are these folks? Working from check to check, barely getting by, some not getting by at all.

    As of for the white progressives, their bitching and complaining is nothing new to me. If anything, it’s what they do best. But what is problematic for me is, as noted above, where are they and why aren’t they out there shaking up Washington? They have the means and resources to get out there and do so. Aside from the horrible blows the Democrats took during the mid-term elections largely causing the President to suggest he will have to do some negotiating with the republicans regarding removing the tax cuts from the rich and trying to reconcile the disappointment from the Democratic base he saw in the polls, why aren’t they out there showing their frustration? Maybe that’s what the president WANTS TO SEE. He promoted the right to organize. Maybe that’s what he needs. The lack of action, including VOTING DURING MID-TERM ELECTIONS sends a very different message–one that THE PROGRESSIVES are content with his COMPROMISING WITH THE REPUBLICANS at dangerously and ridiculous degrees. With that, I have to say that Bernie Sanders has done the president an incredible service and backing up what the president had envisioned. Thank you Senator Sanders.

    On the tough guy thing, I know republicans like the “tough guy” cowboy presidents. But, on Blaque Swan’s question on what the progressives saw in the President, I was wondering if they saw the “tough black guy”/masculine contrast to the white “cowboy” in Obama, in some way?? I think the vote for Obama for many (at least from the area/state where I came from) served too, however, to remind them that they aren’t racist, they’re progressive, racism is a thing of the past, and so on.

    In all, I’m just trying to work through it all. I am coming to the conclusion, regardless of how it’s said or viewed (Obama having sold his soul vs. Obama’s limited in the amount of change he can actually make), the same outcome was going to come about. If he were to challenge the republicans as the progressives wish and of course all of his supporters, the voices from the masses have to be much louder and visible–which is not “anti-Obama” or anti-democratic, etc. Sadly, the lack of support and action on behalf of his supporters and the Democratic Party is leading this nation into a horrible long-term trajectory, when we’ve had a golden opportunity to do otherwise.

    Lastly, what is really sad is that the way economics have been handled and are being handled/compromised might include some temporary band-aides for the boo boos for the middle class, but are no cures for the long term effects. People forget the messes that led up to the economic crisis (Reagen, Bush, W, etc.), but will remember that Obama had a plan to correct it. So far people are not pleased. With the way politics have gone in terms of handling the issues (bailouts, etc., not reversing tax cuts, etc.) will inevitably bring all the blame for all future crises and issues back to President Obama today for years and years to come. With that, coupled with the racist framing/racism, I believe a further backlash will likely come about that will be directed at African Americans (as if they could be worse than they are now…yes, they could be) and we not likely will see another Black president in office for some time to come. He overcame many odds, but there is still much to deal with now and in the future…he will be a political scapegoat for a while. Will he be re-elected into office for the next term??? I don’t know. I think it’s too early to determine.

    I think the bottom line is not much “change” can be made in this current political structure. If we want change, and serious egalitarian change, we need a new legal foundation and political structure.

    My thoughts….

    • meerjungfrau

      I agree with you that he will be blamed for several other things in the future eventhough he did survived so many odds. As you said, without a systematical change, it will be really hard to see another black president.

      • Seattle in Texas

        meerjungfrau, thank you for your response.

        While it may be the case that you may have watched the site for a while, or may be new, either way, so glad you are participating in the comments section. Always nice to see new people on here and the viewpoints of others.

    • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

      I think the vote for Obama for many (at least from the area/state where I came from) served too, however, to remind them that they aren’t racist, they’re progressive, racism is a thing of the past, and so on.


      Sadly, the lack of support and action on behalf of his supporters and the Democratic Party is leading this nation into a horrible long-term trajectory, when we’ve had a golden opportunity to do otherwise.

      I’ve been arguing the same point in the comments of another blog, and tried to make the point on my own. The Republicans got people cheering every destructive move they make, demanding government hands be kept out of medicare. There was no progressive response. People complain about the lack of a public option and blame Obama, even though not every Sen Dem was committed to the public option and the healthcare debate was nearly dead until Obama took the Republicans down at their retreat. Max Baucus was the reason that debate extended into the summer, not Obama. So where’re the complaints about Baucus?

      And I gotta ask – what kind of change did people have in mind? They don’t like compromise, or rather triangulation. But they didn’t like W’s refusal to compromise or talk to Dems about anything. So . . . aren’t attempts at true bipartisanship change?

      Maybe the change they wanted was less Wall St influence in DC. I do, too. Here’s the thing: Obama didn’t order SCOTUS to allow unlimited campaign spending by corporations. Republicans and Wall St alike balked at the new financial regulations. Republicans were meeting with Wall St leaders. Boehner has infamous for his lobbying contacts. Meanwhile, progressives complain that the reform wasn’t strong enough and blame Obama. That makes no sense!

      I think the bottom line is not much “change” can be made in this current political structure. If we want change, and serious egalitarian change, we need a new legal foundation and political structure.

      I’ve come across two key ideas that expressive progressive thinking. Some progressives never thought Obama was a true progressive and so have always felt obligated to criticize him in order to get the change they want. That bothers me because I don’t see the benefit in only offering criticism, however constructive, as though Obama is only and always wrong. Criticism is fair only when it’s accompanied by praise for doing some thing right. Also, I don’t think it’s fair or even smart to focus so much negative energy on Obama as though he and only he is reason we don’t have the change we want.

      Another idea I’ve heard is that since so much energy was spent getting Obama elected, progressive shouldn’t have to continue mobilizing for the change that’s needed. Well, that’s just lazy and flies in the face of logic and history. Yet, that’s what I’ve been told. Progressives want to be treated like allies not obstacles. I fail to understand how Obama can regard them as allies when he only hears from them after the fact, after he’s had to deal with Republicans alone. They acknowledge there’re no progressive rallies, and threaten that without change, none will be forthcoming. Is that how allies behave? Really?

      And to the topic of his not showing more anger at Republicans . . . remember when he said Cambridge police had acted stupidly? I don’t recall white progressives responding to that display of anger with a show of support, or did I miss something? I’m not sure of Chris Matthews politics, but even he admitted that if the cop were black and Gates were white, he would’ve reacted differently. White America just doesn’t handle black anger well.

      At the end of the day, even when offering legitimate complaints, I fail to see the benefit of complaining, and only complaining, even when something good happens. Healthcare reform included a ton of good stuff, but for the most part, progressives could only complain about the lack of a public option. How was that helpful? Even now, aside from being treated as an “obstacle,” they’re in an uproar over $120bill in tax cuts for the wealthy as though the other $780bill doesn’t exist. And they’re focusing the brunt of their wrath on Obama. How is that productive? Why would Republicans change their stance when everybody, tea party-ites included, seems to be blaming Obama. And, where was all this ardent fervor prior to the midterms, or during death panel summer, or just a couple of weeks ago when it could’ve been useful?

  7. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I agree. I think no matter what Obama does it’s going to be used against him, but especially this. Instead of coming out swinging, he needs to concentrate on maximizing his political capital with each action. Force the tea party wing to force the GOP to block popular legislation as much as possible. Obama needs the white progressive media to attack the right so he can keep his hands clean and avoid what he can. Instead they are busy attacking Obama for not being so far left he is unelectable. In the next two years either Obama or the GOP will look like obstructionists willing to compromise the recovery of the economy. Having Obama painted as an “angry black man” will play right into their hands.

    • Seattle in Texas

      I don’t think he should come out swinging either. I’m not sure about the tea party…but I think moderate republicans might be more likely candidates to help put pressure on the GOP to block popular legislation? I say moderate republicans because these are the folks that don’t identify and distance themselves from tea party, can’t stand Palin and did not find McCain the least bit palatable…and who were completely fed up with W…yet, didn’t quite agree with democrats. I think what you mention on President Obama keeping his hands clean is key and what the President has been trying to do–while counting on his constituents to serve as his backbone and support, as they/we as his supporters should have done better. And they’ve already tried to paint him as the angry black man…it’s just frustrating all the way around. Not to mention, at times it’s not easy to even be able to tell the difference between democrats and republicans… 🙁


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