Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, the two most important black leaders in American history, operated in vastly different eras and political arenas — under a strikingly similar set of ground rules.
King and Obama — born 32 years apart — both learned that an African-American leader needs to link racial equality to the broader cause of economic justice that included white, working- and middle-class Americans in order to avoid failure, backlash and marginalization.
To that end, Obama will spotlight his fallen hero’s unfinished economic agenda when he celebrates the 50th anniversary of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on Wednesday, leveraging an event most Americans view as strictly a racial milestone into something bigger — and more useful to a struggling president: A rationale for his second-term agenda.
Obama’s ability to blend class and race messages — to select the most aspirational elements of each — is a key to understanding his success. It’s his go-to power move, the political equivalent of a LeBron crossover dribble, the strategy that helped him bridge the gap between prophet and president.
“For Obama, economics is a safe way to talk about race,” said Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a three-volume history of the King era widely regarded as the definitive chronicle of the civil rights movement.
“Even though he’s the first black president, he’s in a tiptoe stance on race — that’s a phrase I borrowed from King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ It makes him nervous. He can’t even ask the most basic question which he’s begging to ask: To what degree is the partisan gridlock that is frustrating his attempts to govern racially driven?” says Branch.
“I’m not blaming him … The slightest mention of race could alienate the millions of white Americans who voted for him,” he added.
Jesse Jackson, who more than anyone occupies the no man’s land between his mentor King and Obama, the man who won the political office he prized, told POLITICO he “absolutely” thinks congressional Republicans are motivated by race in opposing the president’s policies.
“The tea party is the resurrection of the Confederacy, it’s the Fort Sumter tea party,” Jackson said.
Republicans vehemently refute such accusations. And none of the half-dozen top Obama aides interviewed for this article and others over the past few months say they have ever heard the president suggest race is a factor in GOP opposition, even though he has repeatedly said publicly that he thinks his opposition reflexively blocks his policies because his name is associated with them.
“Bill Clinton was a white guy from the country, and they were just as vituperative,” said one veteran Obama adviser. “But I don’t know what the president thinks about it.”
Team Obama is not a deeply sentimental group, nor is it inclined to make big, dramatic gestures without a clear political upside. That’s why the West Wing has thus far brushed off suggestions Obama make a symbolic trip to the predominantly black, bankrupt city of Detroit — because “there’s not a goddam we can do right now to help them,” according to one Obama hand.
While they see today’s event as a moment to take stock of racial progress, they are even more intent on refocusing the political conversation ahead of this fall’s budget battles, intent on reiterating the Barack’s-on-your-side economic message that propelled Obama to a convincing victory over Mitt Romney. The purpose, aides tell POLITICO, is less about turning the clock back to August 1963 than to November 2012.
Obama likely will tie King’s goals with Obama’s first-term achievements (health care reform, infrastructure investment, the Lilly Ledbetter pay equity act) with his second-term agenda (hiking taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers, passing immigration reform, cutting the cost of college, funding some kind of infrastructure and jobs bill).
King’s speech and the march on Washington, Obama recently told The New York Times, “is part of my generation’s formative memory … [A]fter the Trayvon Martin case, a lot of people have been thinking about race, but I always remind people — and, in fact, I have a copy of the original program in my office, framed — that that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that.
“When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality; it was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot,” he said.
Obama has always been focused on broad economic equality as the best way to deal with lingering racial injustice. King, by contrast, operated in a fundamentally different era — one with Bull Connor’s fire hoses, segregated lunch counters and lynchings — and he couldn’t begin to address larger economic issues without first tackling segregation and overt racism.
“Dr. King is not [Obama’s] standard,” says Jackson. “Obama is in the lineage of Kennedy and Johnson, not of the prophets and preachers.”
For all his talk of standing on the shoulders of giants, Obama has had an uneasy relationship with previous generations of black leaders, including Jackson, preferring to fashion his own message. No aide was more instrumental in honing that message than David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic consultant with a knack for blending racial and economic messages.
As an adviser to mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer in 2001, Axelrod helped craft the “Two New Yorks” message which contrasted the economic success of Wall Street millionaires with less well-to-do outer borough residents. This year, Bill de Blasio — who is being advised by Axelrod protégé John Del Cecato — has soared to the top of Democratic mayoral polls by hammering away at the gap between rich and poor and the increasing shortage of housing for the city’s squeezed middle class.
“Jesse Jackson had a pretty good line back when he was running for president in the ’80s … It was something like, “When the factory lights go out we are all the same color in the dark,’” said Axelrod, who began his career helping Harold Washington become Chicago’s first black mayor.
“Look, talking about race and class both have their challenges,” he adds. “If you have a discussion about [class] they accuse you of trying to divide rich and poor and race, you now, has always been a difficult conversation. But for Obama, talking about these [economic] disparities, which are obviously worse among blacks and Latinos, this wasn’t a strategic thing. We didn’t set out to talk about race in an oblique way … He believes this is the central issue of our time, a fundamental unifying issue.”
Still, Obama is becoming more willing to discuss issues of race in a more personal way now that he’s liberated from having to run for office again.
People around the president say he has never really shied away from talking about his race — and cite his 2008 speech in Philadelphia in which he spoke frankly about the subtle racism he witnessed throughout his life, including his own grandmother’s cross-the-street reaction to encountering young black men in public. But critics point out that he never would have addressed the issue head-on before the firestorm over his one-time pastor Jeremiah Wright threatened to upend his campaign.
The absence of a similar political imperative is what made Obama’s response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing all the more striking.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama told White House reporters in late July. “There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me … There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.”
If White House aides viewed his response as liberating, the backlash against his remarks served as a reminder that the issue remains a third rail. Conservative commentators criticized Obama for race baiting and Fox News has rebuked the president for not addressing the recent thrill-kill murder of a white Australian student in Oklahoma by three suspects, two of them black.
“I think it would be a nice gesture for him to do that, particularly since the country of Australia has expressed their sentiments as to the murder itself,” Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin told “Fox News Sunday” last weekend.
King didn’t live long enough to witness the age of partisan cable. He came of age in the McCarthy-J. Edgar Hoover era when civil rights leaders — including King himself — were widely suspected of harboring communist sympathies.
For that reason, King dealt with issues of class and economic equality gingerly at the start of his career.
That was changing as he delivered his speech 50 years ago. “I Have a Dream” is a race speech — but King did allude to a broader movement to address economic inequality in the nation’s cities, telling the audience at the Lincoln Memorial, “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity for all of God’s children … We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
King didn’t embrace economic inequality as a central theme until the summer of 1967, when he began organizing a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, an unsuccessful effort to prod the Johnson administration to pass a national economic bill of rights; He was murdered a year later supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Yet even at the end of his life, King — unlike Obama — viewed his struggle as fundamentally racial, according to his biographer Taylor Branch.
“Race was and is the real third rail,” he said. “Race had been at the heart of our worst compromises as a country from the Revolution to the Civil War on down … It’s the gateway to everything else.”
By GLENN THRUSH | 8/27/13 5:00 AM EDT Politico