In response to my post yesterday, ‘Obama administration keeping blacks at arm’s length?’, a friend sent me a message saying: “I wonder if we (as a people) will ever be happy…”
As my response took shape, I thought perhaps I’d post it here, to make clear my thoughts clear on the issue at hand. My initial comments were on what I thought of someone else’s opinion in the New York Times, so let me very clear what I actually think about President Obama, and his record in relation to his African-American constituency at this point in time.
So here it goes.
Firstly, I think I would direct you to my recent essay, ‘A 10 point guide to progressive politics’ particularly the point about deliverables.
Political leadership is about deliverables. For all the feel good factor and historic nature of Obama’s presidency, he is there to deliver. He stood for election and requested support in exchange for undertaking to complete particular deliverables. One of those was changing the game. I don’t think it is too much to ask, to continually assess whether he is delivering on what he promised.
I’m not asking him to solve all of the problems of African-Americans (much less Africans) I am asking only that he engage those communities, in much the same way as he engages the other constituencies and interest groups in his coalition.
I am not saying Obama has failed, or the dream is dead, or anything so emotional or definitive as that. I am saying that I’m underwhelmed. I am aware that he has any number of major challenges to deal with. I don’t think that absolves him from a responsibility to change the game, as he said he would. I certainly don’t think it absolves him from the responsibility to call, or have some one call- he leads an administration, whether or not he is personally involved, which he actually need not be, his staff are a reflection on him- an African-American leader or person with first-hand knowledge of the matter at hand, before allowing a distinguished black woman to be thrown under the bus based on a seemingly inflammatory video airing on Fox News of all places!
Now I’m not saying you are making excuses, but I do read from your message that you think black people are being hard on him in some way (including possibly being hard to please,) or placing an unfair burden of expectation.
I won’t speak for a people, but for my part, I think African-Americans are doing quite the opposite. I think he has been given an easy ride. I think early in his candidacy, a significant portion of African-American opinion- Jesse Jackson and some of the civil rights era leadership, the pro-Clinton leadership, Debra Dickerson and some similarly unconvinced commentators- were skeptical, to say the least, of Obama’s ‘racial credentials’, i.e. grounding in African-American struggle and experience to presume to speak credibly on behalf of, or expect the support of, African-Americans en masse.
I think that was a reasonable initial perspective, minus some of the more questionable resistance around whether he, as the child of an East African immigrant, with presumably no family history of slavery and Jim Crow, could truly connect with or represent the African-American experience. Then again, that was a worthwhile debate to have, considering the often ambivalent relations between African-Americans and newer arrivals from the Carribean and Africa.
Then I think the body of African-American opinion coalesced around the perspective that, hey, Obama doesn’t need to be the most quintessentially authentic African-American political leader (whatever that is.) Here is a distinguished black man, who has sought to root himself in the African-American experience, who married, and built a model family with, a black woman from the South Side of Chicago, and is taking America by storm as a progressive politician, while remaining sensitive and thoughtful about issues of race. I think Michelle helped convince African-American leaders and constituents that a President Obama would remain open and engaged, when he had to focus his campaign energies on courting the white votes which would decide whether he won the election or not. I think African-Americans developed an understanding that demanding a ‘Black President’ was counterproductive, probably impossible, and certainly less important than supporting the here and now, achievable reality of a distinguished black man who looked certain to become a good president, and potentially a great one.
I say all this to say, that African-Americans, as a people, have been abundantly fair and generous to Barack Obama. At most, they’ve owed him an ear, the benefit of the doubt, understanding, and loyal support as long as he’s working to earn it.
But that support must always be critical. Nobody is asking him for favors, his job is to serve. White folks are clear about that. Black folks act like to engage him on what they want him to deliver, is like bothering the affluent family member who made good for handouts.
He was elected to lead and serve. So his employers- well, shareholders is probably more accurate- should certainly have the right to question how it could come to pass that his Secretary of Agriculture, supported by the Obama White House, could throw a distinguished black woman, who has quite possibly singlehandedly done more for racial reconciliation and the plight of ordinary families in the rural United States than every employee of the Fox News organization and right wing blogosphere combined, under the bus.
His shareholders have a right, in fact a responsibility, to question, what it is about the make-up and organizational culture of his White House that allowed for Mrs. Sherrod’s career to be ended, without anyone bothering to lazily type her name into a search engine, or call up a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
His shareholders, if they think their issues and concerns should matter, should certainly question whether this episode is indicative of where African-American issues and concerns fall on President Obama’s list of priorities.
Yes, President Obama is dealing with a set of challenges very likely more onerous than has any US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. That, however is no excuse for not having enough African-Americans on, and in communication with, one’s staff to at least avoid doing injustice to, and more importantly to engage with and manage action for, African-Americans.
As for the African agenda, well, that is more complex. First of all, any sane president must align his priorities with those of his citizens. With Americans suffering from painful recession, and the economic devastation in the form of high inequality, low real wages, persistent unemployment and general precariousness wrought by his predecessor, Africa simply is not on their list of concerns.
Furthermore, there has never been much of a constituency in the United States for sustained progress on US foreign policy in Africa. African-Americans are barely organized to mobilize for their own issues, let alone for African ones, which they are barely knowledgeable of, let alone concerned about influencing. Newer African-Americans with fresher ties to the continent are perhaps more knowledgeable and concerned, but have not yet organized themselves into a powerful, coherent political interest group which can get the attention of political representatives in the way Cuban-Americans and Jewish-Americans have in relation to Cuba and Israel for example. If political representatives can see they stand to gain or lose support (money, votes) based on the level and orientation of their engagement on foreign policy toward Africa, they will prioritize that. If not, they won’t.
George W. Bush’s support for HIV/AIDS reduction efforts in Africa was supported by his religious, Christian/evangelical support base. So while I believe in giving credit where it’s due, I don’t see Bush as having any more concern for Africa than the standard US president. I think it was a case of his base’s concerns serendipitously (and rarely) coinciding with African need. But hey, I’ll take it. Thanks Dubya.
What I will say is, I hope Obama is not waiting for the relative political security of term two to change the game. While I understand the appeal of that strategy- no reelection campaign looming over one’s shoulder to worry about- I am wary about leaving big undertakings too late in the game. Big undertakings like: rehabilitating America’s bitterly divided, rabidly partisan, dominated by excessively powerful special interests, self-defeatingly engaged in ideological warfare, irrationally gridlocked politics to be able to tackle big, complex problems for the good of the many.
I think that is ultimately why he was elected, and if I had the opportunity to talk to President Obama, I would caution him not to leave it too late. I just don’t think that is the type of problem that can be solved in a second term. I saw some momentum early on, and that seems to have tailed off after the long, hard, nasty health care reform fight. It feels like right now he is fighting various political battles, and I just hope some significant part of his attention is concerned with managing an ongoing strategy for winning the war.