It popped out casually, a throwaway line as he talked to reporters about finding a puppy for his 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 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 get for their daughters as they move into the White House.
Because Malia, 10, has allergies, the family wants a low-allergen dog. But Obama said they also want to adopt 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 post-election 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.
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.