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Right when President Barack Obama should have been making political hay over big-deal legislative triumphs, race once again blew in with a storm of distraction.
Obama and his administration have proved to be one of the most deliberate, highly disciplined in recent history. Whether you approve or disapprove of his policies, political missteps have been rare.
Yet for a second time, a government led by America’s first black president embarrassed itself with a hair-trigger reaction on race.
In the grand sweep of presidential history, both cases probably will be lost. Still, they gnaw, unseen, like termites on the foundation of Obama’s administration.
As hard as the president has tried to downplay race, he knows he’s under special scrutiny for just that reason, a lingering social hangover from this country’s profoundly troubling history of enslaving, then segregating blacks.
In the latest incident, a right-wing blogger posted a truncated video of a black woman who worked at the Department of Agriculture in Georgia and was speaking to a meeting of the NAACP.
In the edited portion of the video that was first available, Shirley Sherrod seemed to have been endorsing get-even discrimination against whites. Fox News jumped on the story, which also got wide distribution on other cable outlets.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered Sherrod fired. The NAACP condemned her comments.
But it wasn’t long before the entirety of Sherrod’s message got out. She was speaking of her own mistake, of having learned a lesson of redemption.
The White House apologized. Vilsack said he was sorry and offered Sherrod a new job. Obama called Sherrod on Thursday to express his regret.
He said he ordered “my team” to make sure “that we’re focusing on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment.”
Had the administration waited a day, it could have avoided all the embarrassment and apologizing. In fact the attack on Sherrod would have turned back on those behind it, seen as an example of nasty extremism.
The White House, however, didn’t wait. So the storm engulfed the better part of a work week that otherwise might have focused on celebrating Obama’s most recent legislative victory — financial regulatory reform — and his party’s defeat of a Senate GOP filibuster that delayed additional payments for the jobless.
It took time away from Obama’s efforts to revive the economy and reduce the near-10 percent unemployment rate.
Nearly a year ago to the day, Obama also tripped up on the race issue. That stumble, seven months into his presidency, distracted the White House when time might have better been spent pushing for Obama’s health care overhaul.
Within the next month, opponents had managed, inaccurately, to convey the impression that his plan included death panels for the old and sick, amounted to socialist redistribution of wealth and rationed health care.
While Obama managed to stand slightly aside from the Sherrod case, he was at the center of last summer’s brouhaha over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black professor at Harvard University, by Sgt. James Crowley, a white police sergeant in Cambridge, Mass.
Crowley was sent to investigate a possible burglary at Gates’ home. Although he determined Gates was in his own home and not a burglar, he arrested Gates anyway after their encounter grew heated.
The charges were quickly dropped, but Obama’s remarks at a news conference — he said the police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates — inflamed the debate. The president later said he should have expressed his concerns with different language.
That’s when he invited Crowley, who steadfastly denied race was a factor in the arrest, and Gates, a friend of Obama’s, to the White House to thrash things out — face to face — over a beer.
Conservative media outlets and bloggers also have tried to win points against Obama with complaints about the Justice Department’s handling of two New Black Panther Party members who allegedly threatened voters at a Philadelphia polling place on the day Obama was elected.
A criminal investigation into the episode was dropped by the Bush administration, but the Obama Justice Department obtained a narrower civil court order against the conduct than Bush officials had sought.
The issue of racism and right-wing attacks dogged Obama through his historic run for the presidency, especially his relations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama’s Chicago church.
Obama finally cut ties with Wright, but he stood fast with his preacher for a long time.
That was Obama the candidate, before he became a president ensnared in a political climate of extreme partisanship and a news cycle that moves at nearly warp-speed.
That explains why Vilsack “jumped the gun,” Obama said, “partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.”
It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath, the president said, “to take our time and think these issues through.”
Steven R. Hurst is AP’s international political correspondent.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press