I know there's been a lot of discussion in recents weeks about how Obama is much more cynical and ruthless than we thought during the primaries, with his FISA vote, his campaign finance opt-out and all the rest. But First Read had a report this morning that reminds you how, even if Obama is perfectly willing to be ruthless and cynical at times, there are certain steps he won't take, particularly when the issue is race.
The report involved an incident at a Florida campaign appearance, in which Obama was heckled by a group of African American protesters. Obama eventually calmed everyone down by agreeing to take the following question:
In the face of the numerous attacks that are made against the African community or the black community, by the same US government that you aspire to lead -- and we are talking about attacks like the subprime mortgage that you spoke of -- it wasn't just a general ambiguous kind of phenomena, a phenomena that targeted the African community and Latino community, attacks like the killing of Sean Bell by the New York police department and right here in St. Petersburg by the St. Petersburg police, and Jena 6 and Hurricane Katrina, and the list goes on. In the face of all these attacks that are clearly being made on the African community, why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on the behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or black community in this country?
Now, if I were a strategist for a black presidential candidate who'd spent the previous day denying he was playing the "race card" against his white opponent, I might have seen this as an opportunity to demonstrate my non-race-card-playing bona fides. I might have advised Obama to call the allegation of attacks on the black community by the US government overheated and unhelpful, an example of the kind of divisiveness he's running to get beyond. Yes, it would have been tacky and opportunistic--a stunt, in other words. But it would have gone a long way toward squelching the race story the campaign desperately wants dead.
Obama, to his credit (morally, if not politically), didn't do this. Instead, he went step by step through several of the protesters' grievances, explaining what he thought of the incidents and what he'd done to prevent this sort of thing in the past, before ending on a point about unity. It was hardly a heroic gesture. But I thought it was a decent one. And not the kind of thing you'd see from a lot of politicians in his situation.