Friday, July 23, 2010

Why The Panic?

Jonathan Chait has an interesting post up arguing that the Obama administration is particularly vulnerable, and more to the point acts particularly vulnerable, when race is involved: 
I don't think there's a generalized pattern of the administration folding in the face of right-wing attacks, credible or otherwise. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration is, and always has been, terrified of engaging on race.
I think it's worth considering, but I'm not sure that he's right.  On the Shirley Sherrod affair, I think we need more information.  Who panicked?  Was it someone in the White House communications or political shops (or in the chief of staff's office)?  Someone who was on hair-trigger alert to defuse all issues remotely racially tinged as quickly as possible?  Or, as we've been told and as I suspect was true, was it someone in the Ag Department -- perhaps someone not very senior in the Ag Department.  Perhaps someone who normally goes about his business in one of the many backwaters of the government, someone in a press office whose normal interactions are with equally backwater reporters for the Podunk Times and the Ag Policy Review (uh, those are fictional, I think), and who suddenly found himself fielding calls from the Glenn Beck show and dozens of other major conservative media outlets, and panicked -- followed by more panic from whatever backwater bureaucrat the press official ran to who had the authority to make the wrong decision about Sherrod.  If that's the case -- and again, that's my hunch, but I certainly could be wrong -- then it's still possible that race was the trigger, but more likely it was just that a couple of mid-level officials found themselves way over their heads, and any "scandal" about to show up on Fox News would have led to the same outcome.

Chait is right: it certainly isn't true that the administration has folded every time that Beck has singled someone out.  I just don't think we know enough yet to be able to conclude why this time was different.


  1. I suspect you're right. I have trouble believing the President or his inner circle (or ANY President and ANY inner circle) was really very familiar with a mid-level staffer at the USDA (Was she even a Presidential Appointee? Was it a Confirmable position?) I rather imagine Vilsack was at least briefed, and clearly some White House staff was happy after the initial story got out there (witness the Jim Messina part of the story), but I really doubt the senior "Strategists" of the Obama operation even thought about this at all until the real details emerged.

  2. This isn't simply a matter of a mid-level bureaucrat over-reacting. USDA is hyper-sensitive to "racism" charges because of the class action that demonstrated long-term major discrimination against black farmers. Sherrod was one of those who had been a plaintiff and one of the few who didn't accept a $50 K cash settlement. She had also been part of the successful effort to force USDA to reopen the process because the original notice and eligibility processes had left out a lot of people who had been injured.

    Congress has had to increase the funds which had originally been set aside for payments. Even that funding has been inadequate, so as I understand it, Congress is now facing having to vote on another increase this session. Needless to say, lots of the GOP on the Hill are ferociously opposed to any such meansures and have been trying to make hay out of it. It's not a vote many Dems wanted to take before the midterms.

    This program is Exhibit A for the Rush-bots whom he has convinced that Obama's policies are all about "reparations". So both the senior civil service and the political appointees iat USDA are perpetually engaged in navigating the nastiness of attacks from all sides on how they conduct their business.

    For Vilsack on down, the vision of endless incendiary Congressional hearings must have flashed before their eyes when they read the (out-of-context) quote. So USDA was on a hair-trigger on this topic.

  3. Give Obama points for this - his administration acted stupidly, probably based on a knee-jerk response rather than focused deliberation, but then acted remarkably quickly to right the wrong (as best it can be righted after the fact). I can't think of another example of any president correcting a mistake so quickly. OTOH, the list of presidents who reacted to their mistakes by digging in, shooting the messenger, casting aspersions, assassinating characters, blaming the media, etc. is long, and might include nearly every president who's ever occupied the Oval Office (it's certainly a good description of every mistake W made in his tenure). Maybe the incident shows the president is "terrified of engaging on race", but it definitely shows that he can be held accountable. That's a good thing, and is consistent with the way Obama has dealt with mistakes and "distractions" ever since he started running for Prez. While W, Clinton and Nixon in particular seemed to suffer from extreme self-pity, Obama seems to lack this character flaw - either that, or he's got the good sense to keep it under wraps.

    One more good thing. Breitbart thought he had evidence to prove his thesis, constantly promoted by right-wingers, that modern civil rights activism is about sticking it to whitey. (The odious and obscene Charles Krauthammer describes this attitude as "some races are more equal than others.") As it turns out, Sherrod's story is a contemporary "To Kill a Mockingbird" - except that here the protagonist's father was killed by white men who were not punished for the crime and the protagonist reacted, not by answering violence with violence and hate with hate, but by working for justice for all poor people, regardless of race. (Atticus would feel like a piker standing next to her.) This, not reparations or reprisals or spoils, is what drives most who care about racial justice, even the poor old outdated NAACP. If Sherrod had been guilty as charged, you can bet conservatives would make her the poster woman for all the evil that civil rights activists do. As it turns out, she's a shining example of the people who work their butts off for social justice.

  4. Jonathan, I think you're spot-on that the driving force in the resignation was an AG Department not used to responding to right-wing media attacks. But there was another factor that seems to be getting lost in the discussion: Benjamin Jealous's tweeted call for Mrs. Sherrod's resignation. Since from the start, the video was identified as being taken at an NAACP event, the call from that organization's President for resignation would've seemed to both confirm the charge and added pressure to the decision making process.
    If, on the other hand, the NAACP had investigated the situation before responding, there would have been less pressure on the admistration to act, and possibly (hopefully?) investigate the charges themselves. If the NAACP's first official comment had been to post the unedited video and point out the lie Breitbart had purportrated, the resulting story would be wholly on the deception and deliberate race-baiting practiced by Breitbart and abetted by Fox News. Sigh.
    In fact, if you want to go all Machiavellian on this, the best thing would have been to let the Fox News cycle spin this for a day more, say nothing, then drop the hammer.

  5. D'Oh, I was (partially) wrong. Jealous's comments came after her resignation, so no added pressure there. But still, if he'd checked his facts before commenting...


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