Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have a lot in common. They’re both courteous, charismatic and wonky. They’re both people of color who rose from modest means in part because their mothers fought to get them a decent education. They were both community organizers. And at tender ages they both challenged older, entrenched House Democrats, though Obama—in his 2000 race against Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush—lost.
One difference lies in the way they talk about America. Obama consistently acknowledged America’s racist history. He would never have declared, as George W. Bush did in his second inaugural that, “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and Earth. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.” I suspect Obama would have gagged on the words.
But Obama did suggest that America naturally ascends towards greater equality and justice. In his famous March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race, he argued that, “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” In implying that progress was preordained, Obama was not trying to slight those Americans who struggled against injustice. To the contrary, he honored them frequently. But he depicted their struggles less as clashes of interests and values than as the unfolding of ideals and aspirations that most Americans shared. In the 2004 Democratic convention speech that first won him national attention, Obama spoke of the common “hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs” and of “immigrants setting out for distant shores.” To which Ta-Nehisi Coates acidly noted that, “Some of those same immigrants had firebombed the homes of the children of those same slaves.” Obama, Coates charged, “ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism.”