With his phone calls to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley last week, Barack Obama seems to have defused the furor over his comment that Crowley had acted "stupidly" in handcuffing Gates on his own front porch. (I agree with Obama' final verdict, which is that Crowley did overreact, even if it appears that Gates got hysterical.) It may be that Obama was admirably taking advantage of what he calls "a teachable moment," and showing America that racial disputes can lead to dialogue and not just name-calling. But Obama was also mindful of what has become a favorite line of attack among post-Bush conservatives: the aggrieved white guy.
This is the third time in the past year that Obama has squared off, directly or indirectly, with working-class white men. First, there was Joe the Plumber. Last fall, John McCain's campaign became, to an astonishing degree, connected to the grievances of an (unlicensed) Ohio plumber. JTP's message wasn't explicitly racialized--he complained primarily that Obama was leading America down the path toward socialism. But it was impossible to ignore the way he embodied a working-class white everyman who has traditionally felt threatened by minority groups in America. Although McCain lost badly, JTP did allow him to abandon his ineffective emphasis on foreign policy issues like Iraq and Russia and focus his message late in the campaign around Obama's social spending--a preview of the GOP's most potent line of attack today.
Then, there was the Sotomayor nomination. His Supreme Court nominee was controversial for a recent court ruling which denied promotions deprived a group of white firefighters, coupled with her ill-advised advised assertion that "a wise Latina" might reach a better decision that a white male judge. Senate Republicans and conservative pundits clobbered Sotomayor for the implication that she was biased against white guys. Their point was illustrated with potent stagecraft, in the form of uniformed white firefighters--the losers in the New Haven case--who attended Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings in their dress uniforms. They were icons of the heroic working-class white guy. Sotomayor's hearings went about as smoothly as possible, but the GOP did use them to lay the groundwork for a narrative that the Obama administration gives special preference to minority groups.
Now comes Sergeant Crowley. Conservatives could hardly ask for a more effective vehicle for this burgeoning narrative. While Joe the Plumber was an obvious moron, and Sotomayor too sympathetic and skillful to demonize, Crowley (no relation, sorry) is political gold. He is the hard-working white man who wears a uniform and risks his life for his country. Note that such a uniformed civilian hero is especially valuable for a Republican party which, through the fiasco in Iraq, has largely lost its monopolistic claim on representing the uniformed American soldier. And while it's hard to defend Crowley's arrest of Gates, he does seem to be winning the spin war over character and temperament (particularly after African-American members of the Cambridge police force came to his defense last week). Crowley also plays into the only theme conservatives like more than race, which is class. For Obama to be in the defense of a Harvard professor who summers on the Vineyard against a police officer who attends neighborhood softball games at night--particularly after Obama admitted during his first comments about the case that he did not know all the facts--is almost too good to be true, from the GOP's perspective.
Obama and his advisors surely realized this. They understood that Crowley represented something far more dangerous to their post-racial narrative than either Joe the Plumber or those uniformed firefighters. For once, conservatives stood to gain real traction on both issues of race and class in one simple episode. It wasn't going to ruin his presidency, but it was too volatile to be ignored. Obama had to take control of the story before it took control of him.