The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down with President Obama for a series of interviews for Coates’ four-part ‘My President Was Black’ feature, and what the president had to say shouldn’t be all that surprising for conservatives who have followed his actions the past eight years.
“In 2008 I was never subjected to the kind of concentrated vilification of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the whole conservative-media ecosystem, and so as a consequence, even for my first two years as a senator I was polling at 70 percent,” Obama said in the first interview.
Then things changed, and Obama blamed a lot of the criticism as stemming from a form of tepid racism (emphasis added).
[T]hey weren’t seeing some image of me as trying to take away their stuff and give it to black people, and coddle criminals, and all the stereotypes of not just African American politicians but liberal politicians. You started to see that kind of prism being established towards the end of the 2008 race, particularly once Sarah Palin was the nominee. And obviously almost immediately after I was elected, it was deployed in full force. And it had an impact in terms of how a large portion of white voters would see me.
And what that speaks to—and this is something I still strongly believe—is that the suspicion between races, the way it can manifest itself in politics, in part comes out of people’s daily interactions and the fact that we’re segregated by communities, and by schools, and our churches, and people’s memories passed down through generations.
The president, who once lamented the fact that one reason his party couldn’t reach certain voters is because of “Fox News in every bar and restaurant,” recalled a story Bill Clinton once told him before bringing up the issue again:
He went back to Arkansas with a former aide of his when he was governor and when he was running, who ended up running for Congress and was about to retire from Congress. This was one of the last blue dogs. And as they were traveling around ,this former member of Congress said to Bill, “You know, I don’t think you could win Arkansas today.” And he said, “Well, why not?” He says, “You know, when we used to run, you and I would drive around to these small towns and communities out there, and you’d meet with the publisher and editor of the little small-town paper, and you’d have a conversation with them. And they were fairly knowledgeable about some of the issues, and they had their quirks and blind spots, but basically you as a Democrat could talk about civil rights and the need to invest in communities and they understood that. Except now those papers are all gone and if you go into any bar, you go into any barbershop, the only thing that’s on is Fox News.” And it has shaped an entire generation of voters and tapped into their deepest anxieties…
The second interview found Obama speaking candidly about some of the criticism he’s received from both the right and the left, and, of course, blaming it on a “fictional character named Barack Obama” portrayed by conservative outlets.
[O]ne of the things that you come pretty early on to understand in this job, and you start figuring out even during the course of the campaign, is that there’s Barack Obama the person and there’s Barack Obama the symbol, or the office holder, or what people are seeing on television, or just a representative of power. And so when people criticize or respond negatively to me, usually they’re responding to this character that they’re seeing on TV called Barack Obama, or to the office of the presidency and the White House and what that represents. And so you don’t take it personally. You understand that if people are angry that somehow the government is failing, then they are going to look to the guy who represents government. And that applies, by the way, even to some of the folks who are now Trump supporters. They’re responding to a fictional character named Barack Obama who they see on Fox News or who they hear about through Rush Limbaugh.
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