THE BLACK MESSIAH?
Last November, Barack Obama garnered the highest share of the popular vote of any Democrat since LBJ in 1964. If ever there was an opportunity for him to unify the nation, this is it. But what can we realistically expect from him over the next four years?
By Justin Remus
A Black family now lives in the White House, an iconic structure that just happens to have been built by Black slaves. The metaphorical implications are unmistakable. To many, Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain represents the beginning of the end of the United States’ long history of racism and the beginning of a shining new day in American politics.
This symbolic victory aside, however, some might wonder why Mr. Obama would even want to be president at this point in time. On several fronts, the country is teetering …
…on the brink of disaster. He inherits the worst economy since the Great Depression, not to mention the Iraq War, which has taken over 4,000 American lives and has no definitive end in sight.
Our new president claims to have a clear mandate from the people, but that comes with enormous expectations that he may not have the resources to meet. There are already rumblings that President Obama will scale back his plans to reform health care, a critical issue that affects millions of lower- and middle-income families. There are also rumors that he will leave the Bush tax cuts in place, which are due to expire in 2011. The reasoning behind this is that nothing should be done that might imperil the economy’s recovery, although the benefits of maintaining those cuts is a matter of conjecture. What it surely will do is increase the deficit and likely delay social reforms. It appears, on the surface, that he may be extending an olive branch to the Republican Right.
Obama emphatically made the failed economic policies of the Bush administration the focal point of the election. Voters took him up on that, choosing change over the status quo. They’re now hoping that he doesn’t go back on his word in the face of significant pressure from Wall Street, which is accustomed to operating with little or no constraints. Will he buckle under the pressure and embrace continuity of the current financial system, with all its flaws intact?
He might already have unknowingly done so, if details emerging about the massive U.S. Treasury bailout (which Obama vigorously supported during the election) are to be believed. Award-winning investigative journalist Naomi Klein has found numerous instances of chicanery and misuse of the bailout funds, all of which are disturbing, to say the least. Several of her findings are confirmed by last December’s GAO report to Congress.
The money lent by the U.S. Treasury to banks in exchange for equity was supposed to alleviate the credit crunch. Instead, according to Klein, the banks themselves have explicitly revealed that the bailout money is being used for bonuses, salaries, dividends, and mergers. They were allowed to get away with this because the Federal Reserve didn’t impose the proper oversight restrictions. It effectively allowed Wall Street to regulate these enormous disbursements by itself. The concessions that the Federal Reserve did receive were almost laughable at a time of such high leverage, in contrast with what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown secured from the banks in the U.K., for example. Sadly, the government has bailed out the rich on their bad investments, but there is no relief for debt-ridden wage-earners. The Democrats are aware of the bailout’s borderline illegalities and lack of accountability but were afraid to challenge the Bush administration because they feared a run on the banks. Obama pushed hard for the bailout during the campaign (as did John McCain), despite polls showing it to be wildly unpopular. Now he will have to live with its repercussions.
One of Obama’s major deviations from the norm is his plan for higher taxes on the wealthy, but that will produce smaller revenues if the well-off prefer to take their returns in the form of capital gains instead of income, which is commonplace. For now, the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors (FIRE), where wealth and power are concentrated the most, remain much the same as they were during the Bush era, despite the financial crisis. There will be some tax relief for most working Americans, although many will use it to pay off existing debts.
Obama would no doubt prefer more redistributive policies, but it’s really not in his nature to aggressively challenge the system. He may disappoint many of his supporters in this way. Given the overwhelming influence that Wall Street and U.S. corporations still have, some fear that Obama’s approach to U.S. monetary policy will be too timid. However, the severity of the situation may force him to act more boldly. A huge public works program is planned, as is stronger regulation of the financial system. What these measures will accomplish, nobody knows, but if Team Obama doesn’t come up with the goods, they’ll more than likely be out of a job in four years.
The stakes are exceedingly high for African-Americans, many of whom have fallen victim to the growing disparity between the rich and poor. African-Americans have suffered disproportionately compared to their counterparts in other ethnic groups, but it’s simplistic and unrealistic to expect President Obama to undo all of the racial injustices of the past. Still, he is—and will continue to be—an advocate for affirmative action, even though he has hinted that he might prefer it to include gender and class distinctions, as well as racial ones. He also has plans to create an Office of Urban Policy, a dramatic departure from previous administrations that have largely ignored urban centers since the late 60s. Obama was a community organizer, and he has spoken firsthand with the poor in these areas. He has listened to them and can relate to them, unlike former president George W. Bush, who demonstrated an almost pathological disconnect with the swelling underclass.
Of course, these are problems that any Democratic president would have to face following eight years of Republican rule. But what about the specific issues that are unique to America’s first Black president? There are some who think that Mr. Obama’s election should mean the end of African-Americans “complaining” about getting a raw deal. Others believe that he can stress the value of education and the importance of proper manners, as well as illuminate the dangers of rap music. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Time, this assumes that most Black people are a “bunch of hapless layabouts who spend their days ticking off reparations demands and shaking their fist at the White man.” It also begs the question of what people really expect of Obama. Is he a president or a messiah? He would be the first to say that he cannot do everything for everyone. He has always emphasized that government, although a powerful force for good, cannot do what a mother or father should do. The president can’t control what music kids listen to or make them do their homework. That’s the job of a parent. It’s not realistic for people to get their values from a politician, or any other public figure, for that matter. As Coates points out, there is a tendency among the media to articulate a single Black narrative and ignore all of the complexities of African-Americans and their individual belief systems.
Sometimes, it seems Obama is in a no-win situation. There’s been a fair amount of criticism of his cabinet appointments, that they are establishment figures or “retreads” from the Clinton administration. But as Josh Marshall pointed out on his website Talking Points Memo: “With a strong president, appointees, particularly cabinet appointees, execute policy. They execute [Obama’s] policies. I think we have a strong president. And unless I see policies that don’t square with the platform he ran on (which I don’t expect), I see no reason to revise that judgment.”
He may be right. While Obama could have appointed more progressives to cabinet positions, there is some logic behind his choices. He wants experienced people close to him who can handle themselves when they hit the ground running. The learning curve will be short, given the extreme financial mess we’re in. The records of some of these cabinet officials are spotty, but one would think that they have learned a few things in the intervening years and will make new policies instead of repeating former mistakes. Larry Summers is a good example. A neo-liberal economics guru during the previous decade, he has now written in the Financial Times that the “wealth and income gains from the easy availability of credit were highly concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few.” That’s as much of a mea culpa as you’ll hear from a former free-market champion. If things work out, Obama’s picks will look shrewd in retrospect. And let’s face it: Experience should count for something.
The harping on the Clinton connection is somewhat overblown. Obama’s promises to include Republicans in his cabinet notwithstanding, the previous Democratic administration before Clinton’s was Jimmy Carter’s, so it was inevitable that there would be some overlap with the Clinton regime, regardless of who was chosen.
And, as Marshall said, it all comes down to the man in charge. If one judges Obama by the way he ran his campaign, he won’t panic in the face of adversity and will adjust his strategy as needed. He understood that running for president and serving as president are interconnected, that in fact, his campaign was preparation for being commander-in-chief. If the way he ran for president is any indication of how he will govern, then he is one of the best prepared presidents to take office in the modern era.
During the election, Obama was already planning with his advisers on how he would put a transition team into place and how he would govern, which is very uncommon. Immediately following his win, he quickly and seamlessly assembled a staff and advisors, which put the word out to Washington that there was a new sheriff in town. Of those he picked, Obama showed that he was unafraid to surround himself with strong personalities who might disagree with him. He also skillfully co-opted Hillary Clinton by making her Secretary of State, and he wisely ingratiated himself with former nemesis McCain, promising him a substantial role during his presidency.
Obama is a quick study, a quality that will serve him well during his on-the-job training. Many of his advisers point out that he’s willing to listen to different solutions to a problem and will find a remedy without investing his ego into it or grandstanding. He’s also practically unflappable, which he demonstrated by ignoring the numerous smear campaigns that dogged him throughout his campaign. A cool head is a character trait that will serve him well in the pressure cooker he will inhabit daily.
The Republicans made fun of Obama for being a community organizer, but his experience pounding the pavement enabled him to understand that reform begins at a grassroots level. To that end, his campaign was brilliantly organized to generate mass support, attract volunteers, and set up field offices across the country. The Obama team also became legendary for their mastery of technology. They compiled a massive online interface of names from their voter registration drives, rallies, the Democratic Party’s integrated voter file, and lists of people bought from outside vendors. Elizabeth Drew, writing for the New York Review of Books, estimates that the Obama people have over 10,000,000 addresses in their database. Before the election, they were contacted through e-mails, phone calls, and text messages, sometimes several times. Even now, the Obama camp continues to keep its supporters informed. This personal connection to a significant chunk of voters will come in handy during Obama’s presidency, because these people can be used to put pressure on Congress to push through difficult legislation. More than any other president in recent memory, Obama has brought the general populace into the front lines of politics.
But this is an age of anxiety and discontent, and President Obama faces vast and complicated challenges. To his credit, he has reiterated that he will close Guantanamo and put an end to American torture practices. Environ-mental policy and race relations should improve under his watch, too. Beyond that, the future is more ambiguous, especially as to how he’ll intervene in the economic crisis and withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. He has vowed to create energy independence and “millions” of green jobs, reform health care and education, provide tax cuts for the middle class, improve the nation’s infrastructure, and so on. He made a lot of promises to get elected, and no one is quite sure how he’ll go about keeping them. An advisor of his told Elizabeth Drew that he will “govern from the center.” That won’t please traditional Democrats, which promises future conflicts in Congress.
After the breathless enthusiasm of Election Night, we will have to be patient and give President Obama time to make good on his campaign promises. He probably won’t always act as quickly as we would like. He’ll listen to his advisors, sift through the information, and make careful decisions. That’s why we elected him, for his level-headedness. Some will be frustrated by that approach, but in contrast to George W. Bush, who acted from the gut with disastrous results, thinking long-term may be exactly what America needs to turn itself around.
Copyright Star Media Spring 2009