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AS SEEN ON TV

This week, Obama stopped being the president of one America

Obama on The Colbert Report
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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Published This article is more than 2 years old.

President Obama’s television interviews this week went beyond traditional news outlets to talk about race relations, immigration, and youth in America. Sure, Obama had “different agendas”—as the Chicago Tribune headlined the media blitz—for the appearances on BETThe Colbert Report, and Fusion. But the diversity of said agendas felt so broad that Obama came off less as a unifier-in-chief and more as a leader of very different Americas, an idea he seems determined to shed.

Initially, I was frustrated to hear that he would be discussing these troubling times from the purview of outlets that some would deem as “safe spaces.” While the president thankfully is no longer confined to the so-called mainstream anymore, I was concerned that he would be thrown too many softball questions for my liking.

Instead, with the exception being a fired-up Jorge Ramos on Fusion, Obama teetered in walking the line between pop cultural icon, black man, and president. He faltered most in articulating an agenda that speaks broadly to all audiences about race and reform. Just what are his priorities? And what should ours be?

Whether it’s police brutality, immigration reform, or healthcare, I want to feel like Obama has a focused agenda in his waning lame-duck days. Instead, all I got was hints of an agenda that reified a very segregated reality of America.

To black folks, the message was a paternalistic “be patient.”

To Latinos watching Fusion, the “American Dream” is still alive, he assured. (“Well, but, you know, the folks who say there’s not a lot improvement I don’t think were living in the ‘50s and remember what it was like to be black or Hispanic and interacting with the police then. They don’t even remember what it was like 20 years ago. There has been improvement.”)

And to a largely young, white crowd, he spoke a bit about immigration reform but mentioned nothing else about race or the protests that have been waged across the nation. (Meanwhile, Obama had told Fusion viewers that young people’s “attitudes absolutely are better when it comes to race,” but he chose not congratulate them here.)

Perhaps some can be attributed to editing, but considering the president just said he was committed to talking about these tough racial issues on BET, his silence on the matter on Colbert was deafening.

It’s as if to the younger whiter crowd he was trying to gain his status as a pop cultural icon back, that he was trying to once again become that figure whose “casual blackness” was fine as long as it’s not put on display as it clearly was on BET this week. That’s was the guy on Colbert. The guy who gets teased by his family for his big ears and who leaves socks on the floor, the guy whose whose iconography sometimes eclipses his political prowess.

That’s not the guy I want to see in this moment where a hashtag has to be created to prove to America black lives matter, when immigrant families are continuing to be deported. That’s not the guy I want to see as cities and towns are engulfed in flames and road closures in the aftermath of the slaying of unarmed black men by uniformed officers.

As expected on BET, Obama had a very calculated conversation about race and his public presence, much to the chagrin of folk like Tavis Smiley. Indeed, the choice to talk about race relations on a black network is both liberating and limited.

After all, a president that himself takes pains to say he isn’t a leader of black America ought to be able to have these difficult, painful, in-depth conversations in a more mainstream environment that will likely reach a more diverse group (read whiter group).

If we’re going to tout the line that Obama himself has defined, that he’s going to be the president of a multi-racial nation, not just of black America, then I want to see a consistent version of that image, with a consistent narrative. It seems right now, and with splicing audiences and Americans and his message, Obama is trying to have it both ways.

In each of the spaces, Obama showed a different side of who he is. Improvement ahead for the Latino community. Patience for the blacks. And silence on the race issue to whites. Taken as a whole they feel disjointed, a man with slightly different thoughts on how he sees our country in this precarious time. Depending on who’s asking.

Once upon a time, I believed Obama had a vision for a united America, for all of America. I hope he still does. It would be a message that would (once again) reach and resonate with the country as a whole. Unfortunately, even after this week of media interviews, I’m still waiting for Obama to make that conversation to happen.

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