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Obama's Achilles' Heel

One outgrowth of the Shirley Sherrod debacle is that people have started to take note of the way the Obama administration folded like a cheap suit in the face of a half-baked accusation from a non-credible source. "[I]t is hilarious to watch the White House scrambling out of fear for Andrew Breitbart," writes Erick Erickson. Jonathan Bernstein likewise castigates the administration's panicked response.

These observations are accurate as far as they go. But I don't think there's a generalized pattern of the administration folding in the face of right-wing attacks, credible or otherwise. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration is, and always has been, terrified of engaging on race.

Obama's call for a "national conversation on race" in 2008 was interpreted by many people as a desire to use his campaign to alter racial perceptions. I think it was a bluff -- an attempt to remove race from the campaign, by talking about it at a high intellectual level one time, and thus to shame anybody from using race in grubbier ways afterward. It succeeded.

One interesting aspect of the Obama phenomenon, that I've noted before, is that conservatives genuinely believe that his race is his greatest (or possibly only) political asset. Both sides, in other words, have been terrified of race. I would argue that race has played an important role in conservative opposition to his policies, but mainly in a sublimated way. Rush Limbaugh's charge that health care reform was "reparations" was an explication of an unspoken belief among many conservatives that his agenda amounted to redistribution from whites to blacks.

Gradually, variants of this accusation have risen to the surface more frequently. Obama's hasty damage control when his stray, unplanned comment on Skip Gates showed the administration's concern. The absurd Fox News crusade against his alleged policy of not prosecuting blacks, and the implication of supporting political intimidation of whites, has thrown the administration on the defensive. And the administration's response to the Sherrod video betrayed its utter terror. If there is a single idea the Obama administration most fears, it is that the Obama presidency systematically favors blacks over whites.

The Obama administration is able to hang tough in the face of many right-wing charges. Anything that carries the whiff of racialism, though, and they'll run for the hills.