WASHINGTON – It popped out casually, a throwaway line as he talked to reporters about finding the right puppy for his young daughters.
But with just three offhanded words in his first news conference as president-elect, Barack Obama reminded everyone how thoroughly different his administration — and inevitably, this country — will be.
“Mutts like me.”
By now, almost everyone knows that Obama’s mother was white and father was black, putting him on track to become the nation’s first African-American president. But there was something startling, and telling, about hearing his self-description — particularly in how offhandedly he used it.
The message seemed clear — here is a president who will be quite at ease discussing race, a complex issue as unresolved as it is uncomfortable for many to talk about openly. And at a time when whites in the country are not many years from becoming the minority.
Obama made the remark as he revealed his thinking in what is becoming one of the highest-profile issues of this transition period: What kind of puppy will he and his wife, Michelle, get for their daughters as they move into the White House.
Because Malia, 10, has allergies, the family wants a low-allergy dog. But Obama said they also want to adopt a puppy from an animal shelter, which could make it harder to find a breed that wouldn’t aggravate his daughter’s problem.
“Obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me,” Obama said with a smile. “So whether we’re going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household.”
In his first postelection news conference, the man who will be president in just over two months described himself as a mutt as casually as he may have poked fun at his jump shot.
If he thought nothing of such a remark in his first news conference, doesn’t that signal that over the next four years, the country is likely to hear more about race from the White House — and from the perspective of a black man — than it ever has before?
It’s not necessarily that he will make a crusade about the issue once he takes office. There was little sign of that in his election campaign, in which he ran on issues like the economy with a broad appeal to all Americans.
But it does underscore that the president-elect clearly does not see race as a subject best sidestepped or discussed in hushed tones. To Obama, race in all its complications has long been a defining part of his life, and he is comfortable talking about it.
The timing seems fortuitous. Obama will be sworn in as the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. The latest government projections indicate that by 2042, white people will make up less than half the nation’s population.
Blacks have been elected to local and statewide office in growing numbers in recent years, a sign that the country is becoming more tolerant. Obama lost the white vote to Republican John McCain by 12 percentage points, according to exit polls of voters — a better showing than Democrat John Kerry’s 17-point deficit with whites four years ago.
Still, a conversation about race over the next four years that is more open and explicit than the country has ever heard from its president can’t be bad, can it?
Obama’s comment was all the more noteworthy coming from a man who just ended a presidential campaign in which he stayed relentlessly on-message and made few comments that could be hurled against him. This is a man who can limit himself to saying exactly what he wants to say — usually.
One remark that did haunt him came during his long-running primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Speaking at a private fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama said some residents of depressed rural areas get bitter and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
Eager to avoid slips like that in the campaign’s closing days, Obama usually avoided reporters and seldom departed from prepared remarks.
At his news conference Friday, Obama seemed less guarded. But that led to another eyebrow-raising moment.
Obama told reporters that he has turned for advice to all “living” former presidents. But he then joked, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances.”
The former first lady actually has not been linked to conversations with the dead. President Reagan’s former chief of staff, Donald Regan, did write that she set her husband’s schedule with the help of an astrologist.
Obama called Mrs. Reagan late Friday to apologize.
Ironically, Obama’s remarks came just a day after Italy’s Premier Silvio Berlusconi, in an apparent joke, described Obama as “young, handsome and even tanned.” Critics called the comment racist, while Berlusconi defended it as a compliment.