Ta-Nahisi Coates has been (rightly) given a lot of praise for his thoughtful essay on how race relations has affected Obama's presidency and the current political environment. He does a good job of highlighting some key political science research demonstrating that Obama's race cost him a non-negligible number of votes in 2008 -- roughly 3-5% of the popular vote overall -- and that race has shaped his presidency in powerful, if subtle, ways.
Most of the attention both in the article and surrounding it has focused on the broader American culture, histories of black political participation, and the reasons why Obama has largely declined to discuss race at all during his presidency. I find that interesting, but I find it interesting less as an endpoint of discussion and more as the setting for a bigger topic: politicians' quest for political survival. Coates plays around with this a bit in the essay, and ends up critical of Obama for not directly taking on difficult issues regarding race in America. But in the interview above, Coates admits that while this makes him angry it is almost surely the correct decision. That is, if Coates' argument about current race dynamics in American politics is true, then Obama could not gain or maintain power by emphasizing race. Coates concludes -- literally -- by saying that Obama's supporters in the African American community (and elsewhere) understand this, so they are willing to overlook or at least forgive his inaction on issues they care about.
In ending the essay there Coates missed an opportunity to have a broader discussion about the politics of reform and change. Because this issue is not limited to Obama, nor to race. It affects all politics, and all politicians. Coates' mission in writing the article was to comment on race in American politics as it relates specifically to Obama, and he did a good job in that, but thinking more broadly can help us identify similar dynamics elsewhere. It can also prevent us from making conclusions like this one, the only part of the essay in which Coates deals directly with foreign policy:
The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on everything. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.Italics added. This may indeed be true, but it doesn't have to be true to explain Obama's behavior. It is well established that Republicans "own" foreign policy as an issue; that is, voters tend to believe that Republicans manage foreign affairs better than Democrats. This was true before Obama, and it will likely be true after Obama. The question is whether they'd trust a black Democratic president less than a white Democratic president. This is a different question than any Coates asks, and he can't answer it. (Note that Obama is up 12 points over Romney on foreign policy.)
And even if it is true, we don't know how this would motivate Obama toward more aggressive behavior. After all, if Obama wanted to be seen as "getting tough on terrorism" there are more public ways of doing that than sending flying robots over remote parts of Yemen to take out individuals that Americans have never heard of.
What we do know is that, whatever his race, Obama has an incentive to consolidate power. We know that he has done very little to roll back the expanse of executive power conceived during the Bush administration, and has continued that expansion in at least some areas. We know -- as Coates says in the interview -- that Obama's first motivation is to win elections. Unless he first does that nothing else is possible. There are many bones to pick with selectorate theory, but at its core it's pretty hard to deny that the logic of political survival is sound at its core. So if we were hoping to explain why Obama has chosen to expand the drone program, continue assassinations of questionable legality, renege on his campaign promise to close military prisons, further derail the Doha round, and violate Pakistan's sovereignty in pursuit of bin Laden -- all policies that would have been likely under a McCain presidency, much less that of another Democrat such as Hillary Clinton -- Occam's Razor would dictate that we rely less on race dynamics than Coates suggests, even if that is precisely where we should look to explain Obama's actions in other policy areas.
In other words, the fact that Obama is a black president in a country with a complicated past (and present) of racial politics might go some distance in explaining why Obama say less about race than any other Democratic president since 1960. But to make that explanation cohere we can't just leave it at that and then complain, as Coates does, that "a total submission to [prejudiced voters] is a disservice to the country". What matters is that Obama wants to keep power, and he'll do what he needs to do to keep it. Service to the country, which means nothing at all when stripped of its normative assumptions especially in this context, is not Obama's concern.*
What does this mean? It means that while Obama may be different from every other American president in one respect, he is exactly the same as his predecessors in another. It is the latter fact that best explains his presidency, including his approach to racial politics, and not the former.
*And if "service to the country" could mean anything with any substance, "total submission" to the voters -- whether prejudiced or not -- seems like the most likely candidate to me.