If only it were so simple. This summer, Obama stepped into the dustup between a black college professor and a white police officer, and the race debate erupted anew. Then vitriolic attacks on Obama over his health care proposals spawned rippling allegations that his critics were motivated by racism.
And now passions over skin color are flaring red-hot again.
Obama's election nearly a year ago - a monumental stride toward bridging the racial divide
- turned the politics of race on its head.
But it didn't end the matter by any means.
It turns out that Obama was right when he said in his much-watched race speech in March 2008 that there are "complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through
- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."
Americans still are figuring out how to hold that conversation as the country navigates uncharted territory under its first nonwhite president.
One conundrum is how to hold Obama accountable for his words and actions
- or even talk about his policies - without risk of being called racist.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain both wrestled with that question during the presidential campaign. Both found it tricky to maneuver. Both were frustrated by it. Each handled it differently.
In the Democratic primary, Clinton acted so cautiously that some insiders questioned whether she was afraid to throw a punch.
Come the general election, McCain early on accused Obama of playing the race card, hoping to send a message that he would not brook being called a racist.
Obama had triggered the reaction with a warning that Republicans would try to scare voters by saying he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
A year later and now as president, Obama is the one working to tamp down race in the political dialogue.
"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are," Obama says matter-of-factly. But he rejects the notion that racism is even partly behind his critics' attacks, as a growing chorus of Democrats have claimed.
Trying to turn down the heat, Obama adds: "We can have a strong disagreement, passionate disagreements about issues without resorting to name-calling."
But the "racist" label is as old as the country itself. And, in a nation founded by slaveholders, people aren't about to stop using it just because a black president is pleading for civility.
Certainly, Obama's election healed some racial wounds. But change takes time, and understanding the ramifications of change takes even longer.
"What we're dealing with is the foundational racial problems that we have had and still have. We're making progress, but we haven't come as far as people would like to believe we have," says Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and an outspoken conservative who is black. He says society is going through "a learning curve" on how to criticize Obama
- and how to criticize the president's critics.