The question in this post’s title is a more pointed version of one asked last Thursday by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who phrased it this way:
Is there going to be a reluctance on the part of the voters and the political community that talks politics as we get into November about dumping the first African-American president?
Matthews went on to rephrase the question himself, asking, “Is there going to be something that just wretches [sic] people? ‘Wait a minute here, this guy is going to knock out the first guy who got aboard?’”
My first impulse on reading this question was to dismiss it as the fretting of an unserious liberal who finds the thought of an Obama loss in November so repugnant that he can’t bring himself to express his feelings in a declarative sentence: “I, Chris Matthews, will be disgusted if the nation dumps its first African-American president.”
But then I got to thinking about the full implications of losing an election. Being voted out of office is, at its white hot core, a kind of “super firing.” The boss has not merely told you to clean out your desk but to get out of Dodge. In the case of the presidency, the ignominy is magnified many times over. Instead of quietly slinking away, you need to get up in front of the cameras minutes after your termination, the wound still fresh, and put on a brave face. You need to tell all 300 million of your employers that you are still loyal to the company and will do everything in your power to support your replacement.
Of course, if Obama were unelected, he would not be the first person to go through this ego-deflating ritual (albeit perhaps the first with an ego this size). But he would, as Matthews points out, be the first black person. Which brings us to the question underlying Matthews’s gnashing of teeth: Would Obama’s unseating be a repudiation of some advance in the cause of civil rights?
The answer to that question depends on whether his hiring in 2008 was nothing more than an advance in the cause of civil rights. Matthews sees Obama’s ascendancy to the Oval Office through the same narrow lens through which history judges the brave but defiant actions of a Rosa Parks. He is ignoring entirely the fact that Obama was hired by the nation to do a job and that on the day of the show’s broadcast only 47.6% of the president’s employers approved of the job he was doing.
If the nation chooses to hand Obama his walking papers on Nov. 6, it won’t be because he is black any more than his hiring in 2008 should have been because of that fact.
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