Opinion

On Obama, 'Take Back Our Country' and accusations of racism

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,Barack Obama,Tea Party,The Washington Post,Race and Diversity

One feature of political debate in the Obama years is that it is common for the president's defenders to ascribe racial motives to his critics. It's so common, in fact, that it's usually not newsworthy. But sometimes the case for such accusations is so flimsy that it's worth noting.

Take, for example, a new piece by the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson. The article is a defense of Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller's remark that some Republicans oppose Obamacare because they don't like President Obama, and they don't like Obama because "maybe he's of the wrong color."

Robinson argues that Rockefeller was not calling anyone a racist and was not even playing the race card. "Believing that some of the Republican and Tea Party opposition to Obama has to do with his race is not, I repeat not, the same as saying that anyone who disagrees with the nation’s first black president is racist," Robinson writes.

Robinson tosses a few loaded terms into the mix; referring, for example, to "the massive GOP resistance to Obama" recalls the southern "massive resistance" of the civil rights era. But as far as making racial accusations himself, Robinson writes, "I try to focus on what a person does or says rather than speculate on what he or she 'is.' How can I really know what's in another person's heart?"

"In the end," Robinson explains, "all we can do is look at what the individual does, listen to what he or she says and then draw conclusions about those words and deeds." Then, noting the words and deeds he has witnessed at Tea Party rallies, Robinson writes, "I can't say that the people holding 'Take Back Our Country' signs were racists -- but I know this rallying cry arose after the first African American family moved into the White House."

Perhaps Robinson has forgotten that the phrase "take back our country" was a feature of American politics well before the Obamas came to Washington. In fact, it was a rallying cry just a few years ago, in a different context with a different president. In the mid-2000s, and especially in the 2004 presidential campaign, it was common to hear prominent figures in the Democratic Party and on the left in general express a desire to "take back our country." If Robinson heard it for the first time after the first African-American family moved into the White House, he wasn't listening.

Some examples. In the 2004 race, Democratic nominee John Kerry sometimes asked supporters to help him "take back our country." "It's time to take back our country," Kerry declared at a rally in Manchester, N.H. in late October. When Kerry called John Edwards to invite him onto the Democratic ticket, aides revealed that Kerry's words to Edwards were, "John, Teresa and I would like to ask you and Elizabeth to join us on our ticket to take back our country."

Early Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean used the phrase "take back our country" too many times to count. In fact, Dean wrote a campaign book titled "You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America."

Former Vice President Al Gore said it, too. "We need to take back our country," Gore declared in endorsing Dean in January 2004.

At a Democratic fundraiser in December 2003, Hillary Clinton pledged to work "on behalf of a campaign to take back our country." After the election, in 2005, Clinton declared, "We are ready to go forth and fight to take back our country."

From the podium of the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, Rep. Louise Slaughter declared, "We will take back our country." Also at the convention, Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, "We're here to take back our country." And Los Angeles leader Antonio Villaraigosa, chair of the party platform committee, declared, "We Democrats have come to this convention … to take back our country!"

And it didn't stop with the 2004 campaign. Clinton used "take back our country" countless times in her 2008 presidential race. And when Clinton finally conceded defeat and endorsed Obama, she said, with Obama right next to her, "We are not going to rest until we take back our country."

And those are just examples, culled from Nexis, of uses of the precise phrase "take back our country." There were many, many other times that top Democrats urged voters to "take back this country" or "take back the country." And a major organization on the left, the Campaign for America's Future, held a yearly conference called "Take Back America," at which leading Democrats and activists regularly appeared.

Of course, the phrase "take back our country" was heard long before the 2004 campaign. Pat Buchanan famously used it in yet another context in the 1990s, and in 1992, Ross Perot wrote a book entitled, "United We Stand: How We Can Take Back Our Country."

All the while, of course, there was no African-American family in the White House.

The point is, if writing that "this rallying cry arose after the first African American family moved into the White House" is an effort to suggest that use of the phrase is evidence of racism — and that is surely Robinson's point — then doing so ignores the fact that "take back our country" was heard many, many times before Obama became president. It will likely be heard long after he moves out of the White House, too.

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