By Clyde McGrady, CQ Roll Call
There’s a popular sketch featured on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” called “How’s He Doing?” The conceit is pretty simple: On a cable news program, a group of black panelists sit around a table assessing President Barack Obama’s job performance while the host asks what it would take for Obama to lose their support.
The scenarios become increasingly ridiculous. What if he grew out a jheri curl? What if he let Sasha and Malia talk back to him in public? But no matter how outrageous the hypothetical, no panelist ever admits they wouldn’t support the first black president.
There’s truth in it and that’s what gets the laugh. It’s difficult to put into words the depth of affection that African-Americans feel for Obama, as the end of his presidency approaches.
Their loyalty is more about pride — of a battle won — than some permanent breakthrough Obama achieved in the lives of black people. Obama’s two electoral victories obviously do not mean that racism is dead, or that black people have achieved equality. But they mark one important milestone in the centuries-long effort to achieve those things.
Even as Obama’s presidency has coincided with an apparent uptick in white supremacist movements, it’s also run alongside a revival of the black civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter has shown a spotlight on institutionalized racism, particularly the harshness of the criminal justice system toward blacks.
Still, the numbers show Obama’s time was not, strictly speaking, an era of black advancement. Black unemployment, which stood at 12.7 percent when he took office, is down to 8.8 percent. But it’s still nearly double the unemployment rate of white workers. And the wealth gap has actually expanded during his presidency. The average white person is 13 times richer than the average black person today, up from eight times in 2009.
But the president’s supporters describe him as a role model, a calm, brilliant leader in the face of unprecedented criticism — some of it legitimate, some of it racially motivated. They hold him up as an example for young blacks in a world where few black people have risen to positions of prominence and leadership in this country. Obama contradicts the old conventional wisdom, as expressed by the rapper Jay Z, that “all us blacks got is sports and entertainment.”
Supporters speak warmly of the way Obama dotes on his wife and two young daughters, setting an example as America’s dad. Even his critics respect the fact that he’s a devoted family man.
In speaking with White House aides who’ve worked for him, members of Congress who’ve worked with him and economists who’ve analyzed his policies, a picture emerges of a president with great promise who was able to push through some of his agenda, but who was also thwarted by a disciplined opposition and a new political movement dedicated to fighting that agenda at every turn.
Somewhat cautious and sometimes aloof, his most loyal base views him with a mix of pride, admiration, protectiveness, disappointment and frustration but ultimately gratefulness.
Policy analysts across the political spectrum noted Obama’s pledge to be a president for all Americans, not just blacks. And as a result, they say he put forth very few policies specifically targeting African-Americans.
Had there been more specific proposals, blacks may have experienced better economic outcomes during his presidency, says Aparna Mathur, an economist with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “As the economy has recovered, black Americans have recovered as well but not to the same extent and there’s still a big gap between whites and blacks in the labor market,” she says. All of this is reflected in indicators such as income growth and higher poverty rates and widening racial wealth disparities.
For blacks, of course, these indicators were bad before Obama took office. But the fact remains that whites have recovered from the economic downturn at a much faster rate than blacks.
Obama focused on other things, says Mathur. After inheriting the worst recession since World War II, he spent his political capital on health care instead of job growth.
At the same time, Obama could have used funds from the stimulus bill Congress passed in 2009 to combat the recession to keep more people in their homes, says Steven G. Brown, a Harvard doctoral candidate and research associate with the Urban Institute. Brown says Obama could have pushed for more foreclosure mediation and extensions on late payments.
Occasionally, Obama heard it from black leaders unsatisfied with his efforts. In September 2011, for example, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, the Kansas City Democrat, lashed out in frustration over high rates of black unemployment. If we didn’t have a black president, “we’d be marching around the White House,” he suggested to a reporter for the Miami Herald.
Coming from the then-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, the statement was damning.
And this gets at one of the central paradoxes of Obama’s promise: How does one square the overwhelming sense of love and loyalty from black voters with the fact that things haven’t materially gotten better for them over the course of his presidency?
Some, like Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, scoff at the notion that there’s even anything to square. The New York Democrat from Queens becomes animated when defending Obama’s legacy.
“You don’t have to square it,” he says. “There’s a definite improvement.” Meeks says saving the economy from what many economists thought could have been a far deeper recession is enough to secure Obama’s legacy as a champion of black people’s interests.
Likewise, Obama’s black allies in Congress point to his efforts to expand health insurance coverage and to save America’s beleaguered auto industry and argue those redounded to blacks’ benefit. And White House officials tout his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to close the opportunity gap between whites and young men of color, through literacy, education and workforce training.
“Would it have been more satisfying to me if he had put forth more programs designed for poor and urban minorities?” asks Cleaver. “Yes. But whenever the discussion takes place about what the president did and didn’t do, that discussion is incomplete if it does not also bring into focus the unparalleled opposition to everything he did.”
Obama had enough on his plate negotiating with congressional Republicans without taking on the role of black liberator, Cleaver contends. “If President Obama said ‘black’ — just the word ‘black’ — all of a sudden he was the second coming of Eldridge Cleaver,” he says, referring to the former leader of the Black Panther Party (and not a personal relation of Rep. Cleaver’s).
“I’ve heard black folks criticize President Obama,” says Milwaukee Rep. Gwen Moore. “And I guess that’s because he didn’t come out in his red, black and green liberation jumpsuit with his big afro and pump his fist — do the black power fist, or wear his dashiki, and I think that many people wanted to see that kind of symbolism. But despite that he did a great deal for the African-American community, tangible and intangible.”
Even so, some blacks in Congress have quietly (and not so quietly) grumbled that the president was too aloof, and didn’t spend enough time cultivating relationships on Capitol Hill. But what started as an initial source of tension between the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus turned into acceptance of Obama’s style and a realization that both sides bore some responsibility.
“You know, he’s not a backslapper,” says Cleaver. “He’s not a guy who would call and say ‘Hey, come over to the White House and hang out with me,’ like Bill Clinton.” Cleaver suspects Obama was cautious about being too closely associated with the Congressional Black Caucus for fear of being seen as favoring his black constituents after promising he would be president for all Americans.
He thinks part of it was also that the president was simply busy. Between attempts at warding off a depression, winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, overhauling a trillion-dollar health care industry and passing new rules for Wall Street, there wasn’t enough time for cultivating close relationships on Capitol Hill.
When differences and disappointments arose, it was difficult for black members of Congress to criticize the first black president, says Cleaver. They feared it would give comfort to Obama’s critics, particularly Republicans and the tea party movement. They preferred to hold their tongues rather than risk aiding the president’s political enemies. There was often internal debate within the caucus that “when we disagree with the president, should we say anything?” says Cleaver. “And many times we said nothing.”
Minorities often feel as if they are being judged (unfairly) by the actions of the most visible among them. Individual failures are seen as group failures. That too contributed to the CBC’s decision not to push Obama harder, in Cleaver’s view. Even during their most stark disagreements “not one” member wanted to see him fail, he says.
From prominent blacks, the harshest criticism has come from those who think he did not do enough to help the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, which arose after the killing of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white, Ferguson, Mo., police officer in 2014, and several other similar shootings.
Cornel West, a prominent African-American studies professor at Princeton University, was among the blacks who rejoiced in Obama’s 2008 election. But last year, he shocked CNN viewers by calling Obama “the first niggerized black president.” He explained: “A niggerized black person is a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy.”
But activists in the movement are more charitable. “I don’t agree with all of his policies and I don’t agree with all of his politics but I understand the situation. I don’t know if we would have ever been this interactive with any other president at any other time,” says Johnetta Elzie, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.
This tension between the White House and the activist community is natural and inevitable because the president has more viewpoints to consider and constituencies to represent, says Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime adviser.
“The activist’s job is to represent their interests and to speak out vocally about their interests,” she says. “As president of the United States he is responsible for the big picture.”
Jarrett says Obama has shown support for the activists. “What President Obama has done is spoken frequently about the importance of that movement and validated their efforts from the highest office in the land,” she says, adding that he’s also been careful to defend the “overwhelming majority” of police officers who are “doing a really good job.”
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, launched in the wake of the Ferguson protests, recommended that police departments be more transparent and implement de-escalation training for officers. Police departments have been slow to adopt the recommendations, however.
Legislative efforts have also fallen flat. For instance, Gwen Moore’s bill (HR 5221) to tie federal grant money to de-escalation training for police officers never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. And though a Senate measure (S 2123) overhauling mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses drew bipartisan support, it failed to gain traction largely because of opposition from GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, President-elect Trump’s pick to head the Justice Department.
In his presidential campaign, Trump used Black Lives Matter as a foil for imagined disorder in the streets and blamed it for a spate of killings of police officers. And Trump won the White House by appealing to disaffected and in some cases, angry, white voters.
It’s not as if Obama didn’t see it coming. During a tense flashpoint of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama alluded to the anger being expressed by many whites: “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” he said. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”
White and black Americans remain divided. A Pew Research Center poll in June found that a plurality (32 percent) of whites say Obama has made race relations worse while only 5 percent of blacks say the same.
Obama’s presidency didn’t do any more to lessen the resentments of some white voters than it did to lift up blacks in poverty.
Election Day last month was just the latest instance in which the Obama coalition — comprised mainly of young voters, blacks, Hispanics, single women and college-educated whites who boosted Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012 — hasn’t shown up without him on the ticket. There was the midterm “shellacking” in 2010, as Obama put it, which cost Democrats the House, then the defeat in 2014, which cost them the Senate, and the upset of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In 2008 and 2012, blacks showed up in record numbers, at rates greater than whites for the first time in American history, and voted for Obama overwhelmingly. But their turnout in the other years returned to historic norms. Obama never solved Democrats’ ongoing electoral problem: Their people only show up when they’re inspired.
Democratic Party officials recognize the challenge, post-Obama, of turning out this coalition and reaching the rural working class whites that Obama had some success with in both of his presidential elections. “People see things in black and white — pun intended — as opposed to seeing things from an economic perspective,” says Jordan Vaughan, finance director for the Democratic National Committee’s African-American Leadership Council. Vaughan believes today’s hyper-partisan environment makes it more difficult for people to determine what policy positions are best for them.
As for Obama, one gets the sense it’s in his post-presidency plans to more forcefully tackle one of the problems most personal to him: the dearth of positive life outcomes among boys and young men of color.
Broderick Johnson, chairman of the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, describes the president as deeply committed to it. Obama started the program to help show young black men “that this nation cares about them.”
Obama leaves office with high approval ratings and a sense he will be remembered fondly. During a May 2016 commencement speech at the historically black Howard University, Obama offered a defense of his legacy: “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into — you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ’50s, or the ’60s, or the ’70s. You’d choose right now.”
And for blacks, Obama will always be a pathbreaker, regardless of his achievements in office.
Few, beyond baseball nerds, remember that Jackie Robinson was the 1947 Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year or the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player. But it’s a safe bet that people who’ve never even been to a ballpark know that Robinson broke baseball’s color line.
This isn’t to say that Barack Obama is the MVP of presidents, but that the historical nature of his election could overshadow any achievements he made while in office.