Did the 44th president of the United States “do right” by Democrats in general — and Black folks in particular?
In searching for an answer, let’s transport ourselves 15 years into the past, which might as well be eons ago in political chronology. Barack Obama, then a senator-elect from Illinois, had been tapped to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (A scant four years later he would deliver a speech as the first African American to accept a major party’s nomination to become president.) He said, in part:
“… It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”
The DNC speech was a type of “coming out” party for Obama; the occasion introduced him to America. His delivery was flawless. The speech was covered incessantly in the media, overshadowing the lackluster presidential campaign of former Sen. (and Obama’s future secretary of state) John Kerry. Still, when Obama began running for president, exceedingly few people — of any race — had heard of him. Fewer still could correctly pronounce his name. And Black folks were … skeptical. Today, a few years removed from Obama’s historic eight-year tenure, views about him seem to have shifted — for the worse — among a substantial percentage of his core constituencies. Progressives have increasingly groused about his alleged “betrayal” of liberal values. I have repeatedly argued that these people either did not pay attention to what Obama actually said, as a candidate or as president, or they were not paying attention. (For example, Obama was fond of comparing himself to Ronald Reagan.) Similarly, many African Americans have grown increasingly vocal about his “failure” to improve our lives substantially.
Of course, Obama was neither the messianic liberal upon whom progressive whites pinned their hopes, nor was he the apotheosis of pride and political power that long-marginalized African Americans desperately wanted him to be. But Obama never even pretended that he would be both — or either. Perhaps most importantly, Obama was far from the racial boogeyman that Republicans tried to turn him into. (Upon realizing that failure, the most racist elements of the GOP, who formerly haunted the party’s fringes, increasingly turned their attention — especially their memes — to First Lady Michelle Obama.)
President Obama remarked on at least one occasion that he is a Rorschach test. In essence he was saying that people saw what they wanted to see in him, whether positive or negative. (I tend to agree with him.) In any case, most Black folks have always had a love-admire relationship with Obama (as opposed to a love-hate one). For example, even as older Black men reveled in an electoral victory that they thought they would not live to see, a surprising percentage of them has always questioned whether Obama is “sufficiently” Black. This is in large measure to his being bi-racial and having lived a substantial portion of his life outside the U.S.
Did Black folk have a sense of pride in his (and our) historic achievement? Absolutely. Did we love him because of his policies? Well … kinda. But the majority of African American Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and members of “the Silent Generation” are more socially conservative than Mr. Obama — frequently much more so. Further, the majority of Black Millennials and members of Gen Z are substantially further to his political left. While only a tiny percentage of us view his presidency as a failure, a plurality of us wish that he had done more, despite his having to deal with a supremely intransigent, Republican-led Congress for three-fourths of his presidency.
When people — Black or white — claim that we voted for President Obama “because he’s Black,” they’re lying. Or, at the very least, they’re delusional. The fact is that we voted for him in roughly the same percentages as we voted for Bill Clinton or Al Gore. (I should note that Obama garnered a lower percentage of Black voters in his second presidential run than he had in his first bid.)
In short, Black people did not vote for Obama “because he’s Black.” Most of us initially supported Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2008 election. (That number includes me.) Moreover, it is nearly impossible to imagine that a firm majority of us would support virtually any Black Republican who had run, or will run, for president (with the possible exception of Colin Powell had he run in 2000 or 2004).
I would argue that Barack Obama ultimately was focused on every president’s number one priority — winning a second term. I am sure that he believed that being viewed as “the Black people’s president” would have doomed him to a single term; I’m also sure that his assessment is correct. Still, there is a nagging sense that he could have “done more” for us. I actively fight such a perspective because the ultimate responsibility for our collective success lies with us.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.