The Urban Perspective column that follows ran a week after Barack Obama became president. Arguably, his top accomplishments during the first term were passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act and checking the free-fall of the massive economic downslide. (Ironically, he rescued the same multi-billion dollar corporates that shared major responsibility for the national recession.) But some Obama domestic and foreign policies were indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush who even Republicans admit left the country in a monumental mess.
There was little, if any, progress during the first term on other issues cited in the column. For example, it’s still hard to identify President Obama’s core values, or even whether he has a strong civil rights agenda, especially as related to Blacks. Also, his position on immigration and Black/Latino relations is unclear. But he did target special interest groups like LGBT’s, Latinos and seniors, but not African Americans. Although he did address other issues raised in the column, for Blacks, Obama’s presidency has at best symbolized, but by no means ensured a new day.
What Now, Déjà Vu or Strategic Alternatives? LA Sentinel, November 13, 2008.
“Waves of euphoria greeted the news that Barack Obama had become president of the United States. However, reaction ranged from joy and grudging acceptance to disappointment and disgust-all reflected in the close popular vote. The momentous campaign was fueled by record-setting fundraising and Obama’s stirring, “Yes We Can”, that resonated worldwide.
Nonetheless, racial animus is still alive and arguably, Obama could have lost the election but for the biggest financial crisis in a century. No longer able to rationalize their drained resources, many “Joe the plumbers” reluctantly switched to Obama: Reality soaked in-they too were victims of George Bush’s failed domestic policies and John McCain represented an extension of those policies.
Obama’s position on major issues like healthcare, education, taxes, energy, Afghanistan, Iraq and foreign trade are fairly well known. But who knows if, or how, they will be implemented? (This is where faith comes in.) Like all other presidents, Obama’s core values will be evidenced in his cabinet, staff, other appointments and, of course, his policies. It’s entirely possible, given an aging U.S. Supreme Court Obama could appoint as many as three Justices, resulting in a profound change in the present Court’s conservatism. Similarly, his presidency will significantly affect other federal judgeships-only 25 of Bush’s 324 judicial appointments were Black.
The new president’s impact will be felt in virtually all areas and a key challenge will be restoring Americans’ confidence in their own government, and include, hopefully, rescinding draconian terrorists-fighting initiatives like the U.S. Patriot Act. The scope of Obama’s victory was vividly captured by an awed Tanzanian, who said Obama’s election promoted democracy far more effectively than anything the United States could say or do. And in this country by an eight-year-old announcing the morning after the election his new career goal: to be America’s first Latino president.
Hopefully, although admittedly a stretch, Obama’s election triggers reassessment and new thinking by Black leadership at all levels. But most Black leaders are conditioned to emulate their white counterparts without comparable access to the latter’s benefits. Steeped in individualism and materialism, Black leadership tends to perpetuate rather than alleviate practices and conditions inimical to their constituents’ best interests.
In Los Angeles, the election of State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas to the 2nd Supervisorial District affords the chance to witness a leadership model substantially different from the traditionalism of his predecessor. Unfortunately, there are too few examples of Black leaders consistently giving proper weight to the needs and concerns of their constituents. Ridley-Thomas’s community oriented record portends a group- oriented model that accords on-going priority to the community’s needs.
Improving Black-Latino relations is another important area needing focus. (During the campaign, Obama did not articulate a clear position on this important issue or the related, hotly contested immigration reform.) Blacks cannot successfully collaborate with Latinos, or any other group, except from a position of strength. Therefore, a new, morally and ethically grounded leadership model must be developed in order to move Blacks forward.
Whether Obama’s presidency has a sustained positive impact on Blacks is an open question, but, as likely as not, will be answered in the negative. To successfully navigate current challenges, the president himself will have to reassess his values and political priorities so that they result in fair and equitable treatment for Blacks and others disadvantaged by a nation still burdened by race-based policies and practices.
Barack Obama is the latest link in Blacks’ chain of progress. His election symbolizes but does not ensure a new day, that’s up to us. But his presidency signals the possibility for change that actually improves the quality of life for ordinary people. His success depends, in no small measure, on white Americans seeing his policies as being in their best interest. For Blacks, success will be more a function of what they present to the president than what he initiates on their behalf. Frankly, it is highly unlikely that he will initiate policies that specifically target Blacks’ special interests, which makes pushing him to do all the more important.
President Obama will be severely challenged to have his policies reflect the idealism and hope he symbolized during his campaign.