Barack Obama’s presidency peaked before it ever began: March 18th, 2008. It was the day he gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech about race in America in response to the controversy over his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In his speech, Obama provided historical context for racial division in America, leveraging his unique past to offer diverse perspectives. Most of all he courageously confronted the backwardness in our history to show the way forward. The speech was a turning point for his campaign, winning him accolades and insulating him from attacks on his way to the Democratic party’s nomination.
But that was the day that President Obama stopped teaching and focused on becoming president, as he said, “for all Americans.” And this is how he lost his way.
The Health Care Debate
After the election, he ceded leadership of the health care debate to Democratic Senator Max Baucus. Soon, the specter of “Obamacare” and “death panels” filled the country with fear and led to an industry-friendly bill far more expensive and complicated than say, Medicare expansion, which Baucus had excluded from consideration. Ultimately, it cost Obama control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, and when the “Yes We Can” candidate faced the newly minted, dubiously tanned Republican Speaker John Boehner, he threw up his hands and asked essentially, “What do you expect me to do?”
The years that followed have been filled with questions about Obama’s mojo, interrupted only briefly by his success in killing bin Laden. In addition to losing the Senate in 2014, Obama has stumbled on the economy, gun control, the Islamic State group, and Ebola, and holds questionable stances on climate change, trade, transparency, and privacy.
Perhaps no losses are more poignant for Obama’s legacy than the continuing stream of black men and boys murdered during his watch: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray; all but Scott were just kids in 2008.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we were privy to surreal split screen images of Ferguson burning as President Obama called for restraint after Officer Darren Wilson’s acquittal.
The playback of President Obama alongside candidate Obama is equally unsettling.
“A More Perfect Union”
True leaders have the capacity to hold up our flaws for examination while acknowledging our virtues. In doing so, they make it comfortable for us to see ourselves clearly, guiding us from ignorance to enlightenment, as Obama did in “A More Perfect Union.”
He reminded us that America’s founding “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery…I can no more disown [Rev. Wright] than I can my white grandmother.”
Obama acknowledged “the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students,” attributing it to fifty years of segregated schools. “Blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages,” he said. “That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities,” places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
Obama challenged the black community’s anger. “All too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” And, he also confronted white anger and resentment, recalling its exploitation by the Reagan coalition and later right wing leaders: “They have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.”
What Cannot Be Said
Contrast this with his speech after the Ferguson grand jury decision, about which Ta-Nehisi Coates commented: “Watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous … What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What cannot be said is that American society’s admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him.”
Candidate Obama said what cannot be said. President Obama has not.
Obama’s lessons are not only missing from race relations. For example, in Obama’s 2014 speech on the emergence of the Islamic State group, he failed to mention the division of the Middle East by Western powers during the 20th century, our sordid history of involvement there the past fifty years, our dependence on oil that fuels regional conflict, or social justice issues in the region.
Coates is right: America is “a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land.” We need leaders willing to confront us with these harsh truths and transform our views. Instead of a Commander in Chief, America needs an Educator in Chief.
Leaders, like educators, challenge our ignorance and help us see ourselves more clearly in order to find a way forward. That quality was there in the fireside chats Franklin Delano Roosevelt engaged us with to lead us through the Great Depression and World War II. It’s what made Martin Luther King Jr. extraordinary and transformative. It’s what candidate Obama did in “A More Perfect Union.” Sadly for us, President Obama has never understood what made candidate Obama so successful.