Friday, August 24, 2012

Romney and Obama: Two Unwilling Mantle-Bearers

Ta Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic has put out an article about the general inability or flat-out refusal by President Barack Obama to assume the role as a leader of the Black Community.  Coates' assertion Throughout his term, there has always been a seeming unease about having a black President. In addition, the President has also shown a great fear of being seen as a "black President." Since the beginning of his career on the national stage, he has desperately attempted to not portray himself as the person to save Black America. In his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, instead of talking about the struggles of Black America, he admonished black Americans for saying reading a book was "acting white" and the only other time he mentioned race in that speech was when he famously stated "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Similarly, upon running for President, he ran from his race. When the story broke about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama chose not to explain the traditions of the black church and did not defend what his priest said. Rather he pivoted gave a speech on the racial tensions still pervading America. Rather than owning his race, he attempted to paint himself in Pan-Americanism, showing himself as an ultra-Patriot. He has similarly avoided the question of his race during his Presidency, quickly back-pedaling after the Skip Gates controversy and instead of discussing race, chose to try and reconcile the misunderstanding.

As Coates notes in his article the only time the President has really directly addressed race relations since then was when he discussed the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and it was met with backlash. While the President has not said he regrets weighing in, and it is impossible to know what he is thinking, in most likelihood it probably validated President Obama's concerns about being a "black leader" as opposed to the leader of the United States of America.

Similarly, some of the President's greatest critics have come from members of his own race. Public Intellectual Cornel West, who vigorously supported him in 2008, called him the "black mascot of Wall Street." Similarly, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Emanuel Cleaver and Maxine Waters have proven to be some of his most vehement critics on the Hill. Yet, rather than address these criticisms or take them to heart, the President famously admonished the Congressional Black Caucus in a fiery speech where he exclaimed "Stop Complaining." Throughout his national career, a key aspect of the President's career has been his flouting of "black issues."

In some ways, ironically, this fear of identity ownership may be something that President Obama shares with his 2012 opponent, as Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has shown similar aversion to being seen as "the Mormon Candidate." Similar to Senator Obama's Speech on race, in 2007 Governor Romney gave a speech on his Mormon faith, firmly asserting "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." He later stated " A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States." Since then, Governor Romney has been wont to discuss his Mormon faith and its possible influence on his political worldview.

Yet, as trivial as it is, by becoming the Republican Nominee for President, Governor Romney is now the most prominent Mormon in America. In addition, since Mormonism has faced many stereotypes, and rumors as only a fringe faith, now that it enters the main stage, it will naturally be subject to closer examination.This appears to be a burden that he is unwilling to bear, naturally. Like President Obama, Governor Romney wants to be judged on his record on the issues and how he addresses the needs of the voters he is courting, not the needs of the Mormon Community as a whole. Whereas Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, his Primary opponent and fellow Mormon, was more comfortable discussing spirituality, and the role the church had on his life, Governor Romney altogether would avoid the issue.

A large reason for this is perhaps the fact that the Governor is part of a party that has strong influence from Evangelical Christians, many of whom assert Mormonism to be a cult. Coupled with his change of position on issues like abortion, it leads many in the Christian Evangelical wing to question his sincerity. Hence, like President Obama appears to try and paint himself "American," the Governor has attempted to paint himself as "Severely Conservative" to borrow one of his own phrases. Instead of focusing on his faith or portraying Mormonism in a positive image, he has ducked the issue, feeling it to be unimportant.

This analogy is not perfect of course. Governor Romney has not been elected and there is no knowledge of how he would tackle the Mormon question as President. However, as a candidate, he has found himself in a conundrum. Will he allow himself to address and discuss his faith in a frank and open conversation? Or will he hope both his would-be supporters and detractors alike turn the other way and find other aspects of his life to examine.

In some way though, by both Governor Romney and President Obama obfuscating their respective minority statuses, they may be doing what they feel is in the best interest of their communities. Like the immigrants who docked on Ellis Island, they feel a need to be "more American" than anyone else, in hopes of showing that Blacks and Mormons can be patriotic, competent Americans capable of governing from the highest office in the land. Yet, what both men fail to realize is that as long as they hide their race or only communicate with winks and nods, it also allows their opponents to speculate with winks and nods about their respective race and faith.

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