It popped out casually, a throwaway line as Barack Obama talked to reporters about finding the right puppy for his young daughters.
But with just three offhand words in his first news conference as president-elect, Obama reminded everyone how thoroughly different his administration — and inevitably, the United States — will be. “Mutts like me.”
In American English, a mutt is a mixed breed dog. By now, almost every American knows that Obama’s mother was white and his father black, which will make him the U.S.’s first African-American president. Still, there was something startling, and telling, about hearing his self-description — particularly in how offhandedly he did it.
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. This at a time when non-Hispanic white Americans 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 he and his wife, Michelle, will 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 would not 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.”
It underscores 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 rapidly is becoming more racially diverse. The latest government projections indicate that by 2042, white people will make up less than half the population of the United States.
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 campaign in which he stayed relentlessly on-message and made few comments that could be hurled against him.