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Leonard Pitts: Republicans obstruct, Obama is obtuse

This was three days before Antonin Scalia died.

President Obama had just spoken before the Illinois General Assembly. Now, he and some old friends, all retired from that body, were being interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. Obama was talking about the legislative gridlock that has marked his terms and how he might have avoided it.

“Maybe I could have done that a little better,” he said.

One of his friends wasn’t having it. “They were afraid of you for a couple of reasons,” said Denny Jacobs. “Number one, you were black.”

Obama parried the suggestion, saying what he always says when asked about race and his presidency. “I have no doubt there are people who voted against me because of race … or didn’t approve of my agenda because of race. I also suspect there are a bunch of people who are excited or voted for me because of the notion of the first African-American president. … Those things cut both ways,” he said.

Jacobs, who is white, was unpersuaded. “That’s what they were afraid of, Mr. President,” he insisted.

Some might say his point was proven after the sudden death of the Supreme Court justice. The body was not yet cold when Republicans threw down the gauntlet. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the president should not even nominate a replacement and should leave it instead to his successor. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley seconded this, saying his panel would not open confirmation hearings, although Politico reported Tuesday that Grassley told Radio Iowa he would not rule them out.

Understand: It’s not uncommon for the opposition party to warn that a nominee better be to its liking. However, to declare before the fact that no person put forth by the president will receive even a hearing is not politics as usual, but rather, a stinging and personal insult without apparent precedent. It is simply impossible to imagine another president being treated with such malign contempt.

But then, GOP contempt for Obama and his authority have been manifest since before Day One. McConnell’s refusal to do his job is just the latest example. On Twitter, a person who tweets as “Josh(at)bravee1” put it like this: “Mitch McConnell just needs to admit that he thinks President Obama was elected to three-fifths of a term.”

It’s a great line, but what is happening here is more subtle than just racism. To be, as McConnell is, a straight, 73-year-old white male in America is to have come of age in a world where people like you and only people like you set the national agenda. One suspects, then, that people like him see in Obama their looming loss of demographic and ideological primacy in a nation that grows more multi-hued and, on many vital social issues, less conservative every day.

Some people can handle that. Others would rather cripple the country, leaving it without a functioning Supreme Court for almost a year, and never mind the will of the people as twice expressed in elections: Barack Obama is our president. He has the right and duty to nominate a new justice.

It’s grating to hear Obama act as if the GOP’s unrelenting campaign of obstructionism and insult were the moral equivalent of some African-American grandmother or young white progressive who were proud to cast their ballots for the first black president. Moreover, his attempt to shoulder blame for the hyper-partisanship of the last seven years suggests a fundamental misreading of the change he represents and the fear it kindles in some of those whose prerogatives that change will upend.

It’s well and good to be even-handed and reflective, but there is a point where that becomes willful obtuseness. Obama is there. “They were afraid of you for a couple of reasons,” said his friend. “Number one, you were black.”

It’s interesting that a white man in his 70s can see this, yet a 54-year-old black man cannot.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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