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Will racial tensions tarnish Obama's legacy?

President Barack Obama speaks during an interfaith memorial

President Barack Obama speaks during an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas. Credit: Getty Images/ MANDEL NGAN

It's been a long time since we've seen Republican lawmakers as concerned about bad race relations as they have been in recent days, especially when they can blame the whole mess on the nation's first black president.

After all, "Blame Obama First" has been the unofficial motto of Capitol Hill Republicans since President Barack Obama's first election.

So, after the killing of five white Dallas police officers by an apparently deranged black gunman who, according to police, wanted to kill white cops, some of those Grand Old Party pols didn't have to look far for someone to pin it on.

"(T)he constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president," said Rep. Roger Williams of Texas in a statement, "have contributed to the modern day hostility we are witnessing between the police and those they serve."

"Instigation?" Is he talking about the president's promises to make sure the rights of victims in controversial police killings are protected? What a scandal.

In a tweet, Iowa Rep. Steve King's quest for proof of Obama's alleged anti-cop attitude landed on Obama's reaction to the arrest in 2009 by Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was trying to break into his home.

Obama said at the time that Crowley acted "stupidly." King tweeted, "#DallasPoliceShooting has roots in first of anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama ... Officer Crowley. There were others."

Hey, I, too, find it illuminating to learn that criticizing an unnecessary arrest automatically makes you "anti-white/cop." But even when this president shows no actual intention of doing what his detractors say he does, they'll claim that he's done it anyway.

Of course, no dust-up about race and Obama would be complete these days without presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stepping into it.

After an uncharacteristic day of Twitter silence, along with the former secretary of State Clinton, Trump was back in the Twitter-verse with shots at -- guess who.

"Look what is happening to our country under the WEAK leadership of Obama and people like Crooked Hillary Clinton," went one of his tweets. "We are a divided nation!"

Of course, when it comes to dividing our nation, Trump is being modest. A Quinnipiac University poll found his popularity among black voters, for example, to be only 1 percent against Clinton's 91 percent. He did better with Hispanics, losing by only 50 percent to 33 percent. It's still early, he insists. He's right, although I don't expect miracles.

Why do leading Republicans try to blame the shootings on Obama? The short answer: Republicans automatically blame everything bad that is happening in the world on Obama, especially in an election year.

But this year there's more. They hope to exploit a possible weakness in the controversial Clinton's dealings with law-and-order issues. A lot of her voters expect her to support the Black Lives Matter movement's call for justice in police brutality cases. But the issue also holds risks if she is perceived by whites as pandering to black militants.

That's a good reason for her to stick like glue to President Obama, whose approvals have been running at 51 percent or more for most of this year so far, according to Gallup. That's the highest of his second term and higher than Clinton's or Trump's, who probably help explain Obama's popularity. Even with his shortcomings, real or perceived, he looks better than the crowded field that's been campaigning for his job.

Finally, Republicans want to polish their own reputations by tarnishing Obama's, particularly on a core Obama issue like race relations.

An April Gallup poll found 35 percent of Americans now say they are worried "a great deal" about race relations in the U.S. That's higher than at any time since the respected polling firm first asked the question in 2001, Gallup said. The percentage who were worried a "great deal" more than doubled in the past two years, Gallup said.

That's the period since the issue of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement erupted amid protests in Ferguson, Mo.

It would be awkward, to say the least, if a president who came into office on a thundering wave of "hope" and "change" left amid boiling racial tensions. It is his good fortune and Mrs. Clinton's to be campaigning against Donald Trump. His clown act reminds even some of Obama's skeptics that they could do worse.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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