Last night, viewers of Fox News could see a twinkle in Sean Hannity’s eye. A political bombshell, he informed his audience, was about to be dropped on the presidential race. Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller had obtained a previously undisclosed video of Barack Obama speaking to an audience at Hampton University. After four years in office, this was finally going to be the moment the smokescreen would be taken away and viewers of Fox could see the real Barack Obama. Great anticipation circulated on the Internet. According to the Drudge Report, the video revealed Obama inciting racial animosity, especially when he used words like “we” and “our” to refer to black communities. The angst, the passion, even the accent: these things are simply intolerable in our times of post-racial politics.
But shortly after going on air, Sean Hannity did a belly flop.
The maelstrom of unimpressed liberal Twitterati that promptly pointed out that dredging up the past didn't reveal anything we don’t know about Barack Obama. #Lame may have been one of the top hash tags of the evening.
The 2007 video didn’t detonate the incumbent’s entire campaign, and Tucker Carlson should probably take some advice from Mother Jones’s David Corn on how to make news with scandalous videos, but the whole affair did do an effective job of ironing out some differences between the political careers of the two presidential front-runners and demonstrated that Obama’s experience in African American communities is precisely what makes him seem foreign to some, like a Washington outsider who is, frankly, un-presidential.
The Hannity-Tucker team reminded us what it is about Obama that makes even the most compassionate of our nation’s conservatives feel distanced from the president. Yes, Obama spent many of his formative years in low-income urban communities. And yes, many of those communities were predominantly African American. This is certainly a departure from the standard presidential pedigree, and bothers some people so much that they couldn’t imagine such an exotic human being becoming chief executive unless there was a scandal afoot. Muslim? Only pretending to be an American citizen? Sure, those will do.
But there were many others who felt Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago’s south side was a strong positive. Here was a man who built his campaign from the grassroots, who brought in donations from the old and young in the nation’s marginalized urban neighborhoods. Brooklyn has always been one of Obama’s strongholds. Shortly after graduating from Columbia University, he moved to a brownstone in Park Slope, where he lived for several years prior to being hired in Chicago as director of the Developing Communities Project.
In contrast, as conservative columnist Peggy Noonan reminded us last weekend, it’s less than common for the Republican elite to journey into the outer realms of the New York City boroughs. When they do, they tend to write blog posts about it that make us cringe. There’s something about these demographically diverse urban communities that makes them quiver with fascination and delight. That is, delight in knowing that these people are politically irrelevant to the rest of the country—that under no circumstances would our democratic system allow anyone who looks or talks like them to rise to executive office. That, simply, would disrupt the order of the universe.
A clearer picture begins to emerge: it isn’t Obama’s "reverse-racism" (ugh) that makes Fox viewers uncomfortable with the 2007 footage, but the idea that these people, who are meant to be just a curiosity on a Sunday afternoon outing may actually hold real political influence.
And they may, in fact, elect one of their leaders President. So for this, we can only say thanks to Mr. Carlson for reminding us of the president’s compelling life history and how fortunate we are to live in a place where the hope of social mobility is sometimes possible. And to Peggy: there may be a reason Brooklyn is 25% republican, 50% democratic, and 25% independent.