Eager to talk black-white politics after the Ferguson, Mo., riots, and openly discussing slavery and his skin color in India last week, President Obama is finally tackling the issue of race that he artfully dodged in his first term.
And now we know why. While he was thrust into the issue at times in his first administration, such as at the infamous “Beer summit,” Obama treaded lightly because he didn’t want to scare off white voters or energize the Tea Party during his reelection.
“They did not want to amplify race because they knew that they were going to rile up certain segments of society, particularly the Tea Party and people who don’t care for him much or for the issue much,” said April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. “They had to be very strategic in their approach to it.”
Now, he seems to mention it everywhere, not just in India, but even at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s retirement ceremony. After recalling Hagel bringing his black former Vietnam War platoon commander to the Oval Office, Obama said, “It wasn't lost on any of us for how far this nation's come.”
Previewing her upcoming book, “The Presidency in Black and White,” Ryan said that “in the first term, he was a president who happened to be black. Now he’s the African-American president who is African-American. He’s very comfortable in his skin. He knows who he is.”
Ryan has covered the last three presidents and gives Bill Clinton a grade equal to Obama, B-plus, on black issues. That might shock some of her readers who think Obama should get an “A” just for being the first black president.
“To some in the black community, it is God, Jesus, then Obama,” she said. But Ryan said the realities of being president to all Americans rules out a total focus on African-American issues.
She gets it, though, as do the few other African-Americans who have covered the White House with the mostly white press corps, even Obama critics. For example, she didn’t take a stand on Obama’s 2008 fight with Republican Sen. John McCain, but became emotional when Obama won.
“That was a moment,” she said, “when Obama was named president by [CNN’s] Wolf Blitzer” during election night coverage.
Hers is an important book because it looks at the last last three presidents, their achievements on civil rights and black-white issues and the impact they have made in improving race relations. And it is an easy read in part because it is full of the insider-type of stories that White House correspondents with access collect.
Now, as the president enters his final two years, the longest-serving current African-American White House reporter is already looking to the end of his historic term and is trying “to engage” more in the moment of having the first black president in the White House.
“I have got to now take in the moment because when he’s gone, he’s gone,” said Ryan. “I will probably cry when he leaves, not because I like him or anything, and that’s not even the case. I’m a reporter,” she added.
“But as an African-American who never expected an African-American president, I have got to start really engaging in these moments ... and I want to catch each moment now because this is history. Every president is history, but this one is a little more special because of my heritage, and it’s not saying that I am into him, no, I want to be more so present than I have been for these moments, these last moments.”
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com.