This is what the authors call the "two sides of racialization" and its implications are pretty striking: it wasn't that race no longer mattered in the 2008 campaign; to the contrary, Obama's blackness played a big role. It's that, on balance, the candidate's race actually seemed to help his cause.
Tesler's research suggests that Obama has remained a highly racialized figure in office. In a paper that appeared in July in the American Journal of Political Science, the academic examines what he calls the "spillover of racialization" — policies closely associated with Obama getting caught up in the racial passions swirling around the president.
The article focuses on health care policy in particular. One experiment found racial conservatives and racial liberals splitting sharply over reform attributed to Obama. When the same policy was framed as President Clinton's offering from 1993-1994, the divide was not nearly as stark.
Tesler offers some caveats. Few policies are as closely associated with the president as "Obamacare"; it is possible that other debates in the age of Obama will not be quite so inflected with questions of race.
It is also possible, he writes, that the president has become more "deracialized" since the health care debate — that time has taken some of the edge off the nation's racially determined views of the president.
After all, studies of black mayors have found that public opinion, shot through with racial feeling during their initial elections, becomes relatively race-neutral once the executives dive into the day-to-day work of City Hall.
But there is, at present, no reason to believe that Obama has escaped a heavily racialized gaze. The strong impact of racial feeling remained remarkably consistent from the 2008 primary, through the general election, and into the early part of his presidency.
Tesler and Sears, in a paper titled "Is the Obama Presidency Post-Racial?," found effects on everything from early presidential approval ratings to public opinion on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Perhaps, the authors speculate, the president's stature and the overwhelming symbolism of his election explain the phenomenon. But whatever the reason, it seems clear that race will play an important role in the presidential contest.
Indeed, it already has.
THE FOOD STAMP PRESIDENT
If the mere presence of a black man in the Oval Office has managed to racialize health care reform and economic stimulus, then surely issues like immigration and welfare — racially fraught for decades — carry a special power these days.
The GOP certainly seems to think so.
In the Republican presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich labeled the incumbent "the food stamp president." And just last week, Romney was taking up the same argument.
Romney has made an oblique appeal to the "birthers" who insist the president was not born in this country — "no one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," he quipped to a friendly crowd in Michigan. And he has spent heavily on advertisements falsely accusing the president of loosening the work requirement in welfare reform.
The messages seem, among other things, a clear attempt to gin up racial resentment among white voters. And a look at polling data and the shifting racial composition of the American electorate makes it clear why Republicans are making the play.