We recently asked readers if they had significantly changed their minds about Barack Obama over the course of his eight years in office—whether that change came from Obama voters who lost faith in him, or anti-Obama voters who grew to support him. Luke falls in the latter category:
I never voted for Obama, but I wish I had. I grew up Republican and voted for George W. Bush in the first two presidential elections in which I was old enough to vote. I voted for McCain in 2008. I was somewhat disgusted by his campaign, but I voted for him in the hope he would govern as the person he used to be and not as he campaigned. I found myself surprised that I wasn’t all that disappointed when Obama won, and I was actually happy for the joy I saw on people’s faces during his victory speech.
I didn’t vote in 2012, because frankly it’s easier to pretend to not care about politics than to support a Democrat in South Carolina. But I voted for Clinton this year. I never felt like I left the Republican party—more like it left me.
I can’t really point to any one incident that changed my mind about Obama. If anything, I’d have to say it was a combination of the Republican hysteria in reaction to Obama’s election along with his moderation in reacting to it. I also discovered the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates around 2009. As much as anything, his writing, especially regarding U.S. history, changed my outlook.
For another reader, Michael, his change of heart over President Obama was primarily about health care:
Over the past eight years, I moved in the opposite direction of many of my fellow Irish-American whites in urban Red states.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s bruising primaries against President Obama misled me to John McCain. Also, I genuinely wanted to see a Vietnam War veteran win the presidency, after John Kerry had gotten swift-boated by the Bush campaign in 2004. My profound ignorance of Sarah Palin did not help. For the first and only time in my life, I backed a Republican candidate for president.
After that, the emergence of the Tea Party and Obama’s basic moral decency in championing health care reform turned me sharply against the GOP.
Then came the 2010 midterms, the sequester, the threatened government shutdowns, the obstructionism, the do-nothingism, and the failure of Speaker Ryan to pass a budget—it all cemented for me a deep disdain for Congressional Republicans. I voted straight-ticket Democratic in 2012 and thus righted my error from 2008.
This year, I canvassed the streets for Bernie Sanders, because Clinton and her attacks against Obama’s background and faith still reminded me of how she had steered me in the direction of McCain in 2008. However, when she secured the nomination and got Obama, Biden, Warren, and Sanders to endorse her candidacy, I followed suit and voted straight-ticket Democratic again in November 2016.
Did you also vote against Obama but subsequently change your mind? Was there a pivotal moment that clinched your support of his presidency? Sent us a note and we’ll try to include. Update: The TAD group of Atlantic readers are discussing the question as well, if you’d like pop in.
Here’s Margaret on still-President Obama:
I am a Southern white woman. My parents were progressive Republicans, Presbyterians, and I registered Republican in the ’70s.
But last fall I changed my affiliation to Democratic. I realized that, for years, I had disagreed with Republicans on social issues and had reached a point some years earlier where I was embarrassed, ashamed, and angered by what “Republicans” espoused.
I recently sent President Obama an email—my first-ever such correspondence. In it, I said that I so admired and respected him, and that, as after 9-11, I found myself afraid and confused and needing to hear from my President.
Update from Katherine:
Yes, I voted for McCain in 2008. I did it holding my nose on Sarah Palin, who I thought was a disgrace to womankind. I did it because I respected McCain’s experience and integrity, which I thought Obama lacked.
I have regretted that vote ever since. Giving Sarah Palin a voice was a big mistake. And Obama proved himself to be far more worthy than McCain has been since 2008. I voted for Obama with enthusiasm in 2012 and wish I could do it again.
That said, I don’t think I have mourned a loss as much in my life as I did Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. Not only is she my generation, she represented to me the overcoming of all the sexual discrimination I have dealt with all my life. To say I am disappointed is to understate it. I am in mourning on a way I did not anticipate. Adding insult to injury, she lost to a cretin who is completely unworthy and incapable of the office he is to assume.
I am embarrassed for my country and, more importantly, I am terrified of what he might do out of ignorance and arrogance. I have also learned to judge people based on the stupidity, arrogance, and ignorance demonstrated by my fellow citizens. I don’t feel good about that. I hope I can forgive them for it.
Another reader looks to her father:
He voted for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, but we had a heart to heart at Thanksgiving and he spoke about his support for the ACA, which developed after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his respect for the way the past eight years have loosened the reins on things like gay marriage. The bounce back from the recession saved his job after a year-long involuntary furlough.
My dad leans libertarian (or at least non-evangelical Republican) and has a lot of disagreements with Obama, but he respects the president and his family for the way they have conducted themselves over the past eight years. And he is terrified of what a Trump administration may usher in. He said he would have voted Obama this time around if it was an option.
Likewise for this next reader, R.S.:
I grew up in a conservative household in the Midwest, and cast my first vote for George W. Bush when I turned 18. I did not vote for Barack Obama in either election, but if I could change that now, I would. In grad school, I wrote a paper comparing his rhetoric of hope with the hope expressed in an obscure German theologian. Over time, he won me over with his practical wisdom and ability to speak through the sharp rhetoric on both sides of so many issues.
Trump’s election was a wake up call for me. As an “enlightened” post-graduate student now living in Los Angeles, I could see my own privilege and wanted to help open opportunities to people from all walks of life. Most of the people I spend time with are on the same page as me, so it was a shock when Trump won.
In the days since the election, I’ve talked with friends and family back home and sought to understand this turn of events. In large part, I think it has to do with identity politics. The majority of my friends from childhood never went to college and barely graduated high school. Some share trailers with two or three generations of family members. While they would be friendly with people of other ethnicities if they met them, the area is largely white.
When they hear about affirmative action for minorities or terms like “white privilege,” it doesn’t make sense to them. Their experience of post-recession life is that the factories are closing, and good paying jobs are getting harder and harder to find. They are skeptical of higher education, and skeptical of Obamacare, preferring to pay higher prices than “trust the government.”
While they are white, they do not identify as white in the way that whites are typically categorized. They see themselves as Irish, German, Polish, French, Scottish, Norwegian ... and they are proud of their unique cultural heritage.
I am for progress, but Trump showed me just how far we still have to go. Identity politics still has many problems, which I think are clearer now. It’s up to us to find a way forward that offers a better solution for all.
We previously aired emails from readers who voted against Obama but ultimately sided with him in office. Many other readers, however, supported him at the polls but ultimately turned their backs on his presidency. For Blake, that moment came very early in the first administration:
I proudly voted for Obama in 2008, not because I believed his soaring rhetoric, but because of the significance of electing a black man to be president. I was in tears on election night when he won and remember the jubilation of the bar crowd quite fondly.
My mind changed within a couple of weeks after his Cabinet appointments began. His appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State—after months of attacking her lack of foreign policy judgement as a major flaw in her candidacy—smacked of political opportunism. He himself had convinced me that she was unqualified for such a position, thus the appointment could only have been to curry favor with her camp (i.e., not for the benefit of the country). It was a clear indicator that Obama was going to continue the well-established D.C. tradition of quid pro quo cronyism.
Appointing Geithner to Treasury Secretary was even worse: a betrayal of Obama’s stated principals. There was no way to reconcile his rhetoric on the economy and the middle class with his economic appointments. I completely lost my optimism in those few weeks.
William also soured on Obama for his approach to the banking crisis:
“Keep Hope Alive” worked for me after Bush II. But as a former banker who lived through Reagan’s dismantling of consumer protection regulations that led to the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, Obama lost me when he failed to channel the nation’s outrage at the 2008 crash to reinstate a New Deal style regulatory scheme. Instead, he appointed the foxes that raided the hen house and took down the barn to now guard that same hen house. No one was charged or went to jail or even had to return all their ill-gotten gains, neither individuals or institutions. [Actually there was a single prosecution.] Instead, they got punished with bonuses at taxpayer expense.
Obama lost me that early, and later, he kept losing me—one major bonehead move after another. His Presidency was a series of “Bait & Switch.” It’s been heartbreaking.
For Erich, it was Obama’s approach to education policy that lost him:
Like many white civil-rights supporters, I supported Obama in 2008. As a public school teacher in D.C. public schools, my hopes quickly faded when he, through his disastrous appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and promotion of so-called education reform policies: school “turnarounds” that hold teachers collectively responsible for students’ school-wide standardized test averages resulting in teachers being fired and charter school expansion. In 2012, I voted for a third party candidate.
From a reader in Wyoming:
The “moment” I lost faith in Obama seems to be remembered by almost no one now. On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama talked a good deal about instituting a system of national service, echoing JFK who, to his great credit, set up the Peace Corps. Obama did nothing of the kind. Not one word about this since being elected.
I remember in the heady early days after the election, there was a website where you could go to offer your ideas and to volunteer to work on this new America. It seemed, for a brief moment, that Obama might really follow through on his promise to remake America into a place for everyone, not just elites and Washington insiders. Then, of course, he got to D.C. and proceeded to pack his administration with elites and Washington insiders, and before you knew it, he was lobbing drones around the globe and okaying massive government surveillance of its own people. Etc.
Obama’s election was inspirational; his administration was mediocre.
Speaking of the Peace Corps, here’s Andrew:
I am a 67-year-old white man. I have been a Peace Corps volunteer, an infantry officer, a commercial banker, and a high school teacher in a poor, mixed-race school. I have voted for Democrats and Republicans at all election levels. I think of myself as a moderate conservative.
I voted for Obama in 2008 for two reasons. First, I thought he was a better man, and a smarter man, than McCain; and second, it seemed historically “right” to elect a man of color to the presidency.
I did not vote for Obama in 2012 for two reasons. First, he accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing. This was a “tell” into his essential vanity. Second, he lied first and always about Obamacare: “keep your doctor, keep your plan.” This lie was not shading the truth on a minor matter; it was a calculated untruth designed to sway the thinking of tens of millions of people.
For David, the president didn’t live up to that Nobel Prize:
In 2008, candidate Obama had my support. In 2012, President Obama had my vote. But in 2016, his hand-picked successor did not receive my vote. The Democratic Party had lost my vote. Now, I no longer view the president with starry eyes and I definitely do not share the nostalgic longing for him that many Americans already feel.
The truth is that our Nobel Laureate president ordered extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists at a higher rate than any previous president, and he did not hesitate to order the killings of American citizens. For a candidate who long criticized President Bush for imprisoning U.S. citizens and others as an affront to American ideals, it is disheartening to realize that their deaths was the president’s preferred policy measure.
Joe also looks to foreign policy:
Obama told the head of Syria that the use of chemical weapons on his own people would cross a red line. Well it did happen, and Obama backed down for the world to see that the U.S. didn’t stand for much anymore. That opened the door for Russia to make major moves on its neighbors as well get involved in Syria.
Our final reader is an “international economist originally from India who has lived and worked in the U.S. for over 30 years”:
I was impressed by Mr. Obama’s capacity for hard work, commitment to finding the middle ground on any issue, and to working with people who were not his supporters. I admired his eloquence, his ability to mobilize the young. It was also impressive to see the American people elect twice a man of color to the presidency.
At some point, Mr. Obama’s idealism and belief in basic human goodness seemed to shade into naiveté and a lack of decisive action to head off great dangers. This was true with regard to the reactions that built up to a black president from white Americans whose economic and social insecurities in a changing world made them more vulnerable to prejudice. It was also true with regard to the reaction from well-funded groups on the right to his progressive policies.
Finally, it was most tragically true in Mr. Obama’s underestimation of the risks of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. His actions on this extraordinary act of cyber-warfare and also to the unprecedented intervention in the last days of the campaign by the director of the FBI were subdued and lost in the overall noise.
The world and America will surely miss Mr. Obama, most of all his basic decency. But most of his legacy is likely to be overturned by Donald Trump. And Obama had a part in leading up to a situation where he will hand over the presidency to a man he correctly described as manifestly unfit for the position. The consequences are likely to be dismal for the U.S. and the world.
Many thanks to Daniel Foster’s essay; I found it refreshingly measured. (Though I’m not a writer by trade, writing has been my primary sense-making practice since the election.) I agree with Foster’s main premise that Coates misinterprets Hillary Clinton’s loss as indicative of a kind of physics of history that forecloses the possibility of disentangling America from the bigotry on which it was founded. This physics of history is evident toward the end of Coates’s essay: “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students, even as the country seemed determined not to acknowledge it.” In other words, the election of Trump is the price of Obama’s presidency; Obama’s presidency necessitates Trump’s: If President Obama, then President Trump. If President Trump, then not President Clinton.
If progress necessarily leads to counteraction, then it follows that Obama’s presidency has been a “minor perturbation” from a “bigoted equilibrium,” as Foster puts it. This logic suggests that meaningful progress is not possible. Instead of progress, America goes through permutations of black subjugation: redlining replaces legally codified segregation, fatal police “mistakes” replace lynching, free labor extracted via mass incarceration replaces abject enslavement.
Of course, the institutionalized subjugation of black folks is alive and thriving, and Coates is right to emphasize the permutations of black subjugation that dangerously distract from the ways in which very little has changed since Jim Crow. When permutations are mistaken for progress, Shelby County v. Holder and other retrograde laws that impede progress seem permissible.
Still, I disagree that progress is not possible, that America will never be able to transcend its sordid past. For example, the very existence of a black male adolescence like Obama’s that was unacquainted with and unfettered by the cruelties of systemic racism demonstrates progress.
To my mind, Coates confuses the necessity of Trump’s election with the necessity of Trump’s candidacy. Obama’s presidency necessitated Trump’s candidacy, but it did not necessitate his election.
That said, Foster made some points to which I’d like to respond in the hopes of furthering the dialogue. He wrote:
But it also seems plausible that most of the white people who voted for both Obama and his successor, and whom Coates counts among the “badge holders” of white privilege, don’t imagine themselves privileged. That they don’t know what “white innocence” is or could possibly mean.
This logic would have us believe that any disparity between the self-perceptions of white Trump voters and the left’s data-driven interpretations of them is meaningful. That white Trump supporters do not see themselves as privileged does not in any way diminish or make less manifest their white privilege. One need not know what white privilege is to benefit from it. One need not know what white innocence is to subconsciously require his black president to protect it.
Foster again: “If white America’s original sin remains uncleansed, if Obama were really such an aberrance, how strange it is that America rejected him only when he stopped appearing on the ballot?” It is an undeniable fact that white America’s original sin remains uncleansed. Obama’s presidency did not and couldn’t have provided the absolution required to repair the centuries-long subjugation that no doubt keeps black folks at the back of the proverbial bus to this day.
Foster then wrote, “The racism Coates sees in America is constitutive, metaphysical.” Racism is indeed constitutive—embedded—in the DNA of America. We need only recall that our founding patriots compelled many slaves to fight in the Revolutionary War against the loyalists in exchange for freedom in the event of victory. As we know, that freedom was not granted.
It is also instructive to revisit the letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker—a great scientist and mathematician who, as the descendant of captured Africans, enjoyed an anomalous if precarious status as a freedman. Banneker earnestly appeals to Jefferson’s sense of justice, liberty, truth, and beauty in attempting to convince him to abolish slavery so that America might actualize the very ideals Jefferson was enshrining in the Constitution. In response, Jefferson blanches: He knows Banneker to be a man like himself and yet cannot envision a not-too-distant world in which the link between America and slavery is broken.
So, Coates rightly argues that racism is constitutive to America, but to his mind, this racism is not metaphysical but supervenient. Coates is not a metaphysicist; if he were, he’d probably be less culpable of the dark determinism that Foster correctly ascribes to him. Coates perceives in history a type of physics whose laws are not altogether different from the physics that supervenes on the natural world, which is why he thinks that DNA is destiny. The reasoning is clear and compelling: If the subjugation of black bodies was constitutive to America’s origins, will it not be constitutive to America’s future? Is it possible for a nation to transcend its DNA?
Foster: “[Coates is] quick to assign collective intentionality to white people, to spot white supremacy across individuals and contexts and epochs, to practice rhetorically the same agency-stripping essentialism that got us here in the first place.”
Foster misunderstands Coates when he says Coates “assigns collective intentionality to white people.” For most white Americans, white supremacy operates on the level of the subconscious. A white person need never hear of white supremacy to benefit from and further it. Like fish in water, most white folks are so acclimatized to white supremacy that it takes immense insight to recognize that this is water, this is water, this is water. Moreover, the persistence of white supremacy and the recent resurgence of white nationalism do not strip white folks of agency, nor does Coates suggest that they do. Like Baldwin, Coates believes that white folks are capable of awakening from the sinister fictions that divide us, namely race.
But in place of Coates’s imagined sea-to-shining-sea conspiracy, I’d posit something a bit more parsimonious. That while injustices accrue systemically, caring about them has to be done individually. Plenty of Americans, brown and white, care plenty of the time. They care when confronted with video of Walter Scott’s murder or toddlers’ lifeless corpses in Aleppo. [...] But they care in fits and starts, when they can spare the psychic energy. When their kids are fed and their own anxieties subdued. This is how it has always been and how it will always be.
Tell me, what good has the average American’s care for the “lifeless corpses in Aleppo” done for those still breathing in Aleppo?
What Black Lives Matter activists request is that white folks do more than passively care; they want white folks to actively resist white supremacy by joining a group like SURJ in the recognition that, in the words of James Baldwin, “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
If black folks must wait till white folks’ “kids are fed and their own anxieties subdued” for white folks to join us in our efforts to dismantle white supremacy, well, then, we’ll be waiting forever. To quote Baldwin again: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
Another reader, Niru Anya, has a valuable view of “My President Was Black”:
I was a little put off by TNC’s befuddlement over Obama’s “unique circumstances” growing up as a biracial kid in Hawaii. Speaking as 23-year old, biracial male (Nigerian and Iranian) who grew up in Houston, and as a black kid who likes to think he has membership in the black community of his hometown, I don’t think Obama’s childhood circumstances, worldview, or identity is peculiar to him, or even just a minority of mixed and black people in America for that matter.
For me, it seemed as though TNC was presupposing the coequality of suffering and trauma of every black American. While I recognize and abhor the existence of institutional racism, and am outraged at the ever replenishing well of videos of unarmed black men being shot by police, I know that I cannot rationally assume that every black man, woman, and child has suffered through the same experience of growing up black in West Baltimore. And as I believe no individual has the right to qualify another’s suffering, I feel it careless to act as if every black person is afflicted by equivalent and horrendous racial trauma. The differences in the degree of hurt and responses to that hurt among black and non-white individuals is real and is in no way a qualifier of an individual’s identity (self-ascribed or conferred). To ignore that fact is to encourage the myth of the racial monolith.
I also take issue with TNC’s assertion that a black person could never both gain enough favor and approval from white people to attain the highest office of the land and also have lived through racial or sexist trauma; I do not believe in the mutual exclusivity of those realities. I agree with TNC insofar as Obama’s privilege of growing up in a welcoming environment comprised of loving whites and non-blacks (one that not many, but still plenty of people share) enabled him to trust white people when other people of color couldn’t. But to treat Obama as an enigma or as a rarely repeatable anomaly is disingenuous.
What I have time and again found unsettling is the implication that one is a sellout or “not (insert racial group here) enough” for not having lived through the same traumatic experiences of others (see monolith comment above). And I can’t help but be defensive at the suggestion of Obama’s experience not being reflective of the “greater black experience.” While such racial ambassadorship, inherently absurd, might be expected of him by non-blacks (an expectation I myself have had thrust on me), that doesn’t make it a valid method of evaluation. Part of what makes the black community splendorous is the dynamism and diversity of opinion, experience, and thought that comprises it.
Nonetheless, the trials and tribulations faced by the Obama administration are a source of endless aggravation for me and, as I’m sure, millions of other Americans. Thus I’m extremely grateful to The Atlantic and Ta-Nehisi Coates for providing such a superb work of thought and therapy.
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece, “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” got an enormous response from readers, both in the comments section and via email. The most constructive contributions are below (and Tressie read them all beforehand). The first one comes from an African American reader, Ron:
I appreciate what Tressie says in her article. I never thought I would ever see a Black man in the White House. However, as she and Coates have noted, Obama has not been defined by the most common U.S. Black identity—though African Americans are not a monolith. According to Obama’s book, although he has experienced the turmoil of a racial identity crisis, he has not been shaped by the collective American Black identity seared by years of pervasive racism and disrespect. I don’t fault him for this, but I do take issue with his superficial use of “American Black coolness” to make Black people feel good while simultaneously not doing much for us.
This is as much our fault as it is Obama’s. We are a people steeped in symbolism. I suspect this is because many of our communities are in shambles and we yearn for Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Nat Turner, MLK, Malcolm X, and others. However, as a brand consultant, I can tell you that this can be dangerous. Symbols can take on a life of their own, but when steeped in nostalgia and propaganda, they can also deceive. Obama represented our future and, as far as I am concerned, he did not deliver beyond being a symbol.
This next reader, Neli, invokes her identity as a biracial American to empathize with Obama, despite her misgivings about his presidency:
It was all so new. Barack Obama, as a Black man, had no predecessor on which to base the person who would navigate the treacherous political milieu that is the presidency. I am not sure Obama himself knew what to expect, but I believe he wanted to do the right thing, that he wanted to see himself as a president for all Americans.
Was this naive? It was clear from the start that Congress was not going to work with him. I remember thinking he should have come in tougher, as the “Obama don’t care” man that Larry Wilmore described as “Black Obama.” He should have come in like a substitute teacher, because you can always pull back, but once you’ve lost ground, it is very difficult to recover the classroom.
Was this about personality? Obama endured the most vicious behavior by people who just could not accept a Black man in the White House. I don’t know how he did it. He was too nice, and even this happily married intelligent man who had to be ten times as above reproach as any white candidate never seemed to lose his cool.
As a biracial person myself, I don’t see Obama’s seeming naiveté as the result of his biracial ancestry. I honestly can’t say that I understand whites better than blacks, or that I even understand them equally. I think it is correct to say Obama had too much faith in white America, but I can’t say why that was the case. Perhaps he just didn’t have the political fangs to deal with the den of snakes that is D.C. and so he mostly ignored it, until the second term when he got fired up enough to respond. I also felt he never highlighted his accomplishments enough. (After all, he followed the “Mission Accomplished” president.)
The first Black president—the trailblazer—faced enormous challenges, so it is difficult for me to condemn Obama for what he might have failed to do. I do not think he failed. I was proud of the first Black president, and my allegiance is not always understood by Progressives. I suppose I just saw too much in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. His legacy will be that he made headway in spite of enormous obstacles.
Another reader, Cole, strongly dissents over Tressie’s essay:
I want to start with a qualifier that is incredibly important: I am white. It’s my hope that, while that serves as an significant lens through which to view my opinion, that it does not serve to discredit it.
When reading “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” I was struck by few thoughts. The first, and most important, is really the core of the essay: to “know your whites.” I can’t comment on whether or not Tressie McMillan Cottom does or does not know her whites, nor whether her family shares this knowledge. What I do know is that there is no way that she can base her judgment and indictment of Obama as a black man, a President, and a figure off of a concept that defined her existence.
There is a brutal and pertinent sort of irony that persists throughout this article, where the insistence that the author knows whites, or knows Obama, is accompanied by the assertion that they cannot know her. It’s clear, albeit implicitly, that her knowledge of others, and of race, is both generational and experiential. (Hell, that has to be the core of it, unless there is a White People 101 that I missed.) This experiential knowledge, and its legitimacy, has to be partially based on the fact that others, namely President Obama or white people like me, could never comprehend the insight because they could never understand that experience.
McMillan Cottom’s assertions that Coates’ theory on Obama were “wrong” were immediately followed by suspicions—supposed insight into how Obama was shaped by white people, devoid of agency—and followed by platitudes on blackness. I will never understand blackness; however, I recognize that I can never understand Obama’s substance just as I can never understand blackness. This is something the author never does. The piece squanders what credibility it could have generated by refusing to exercise any sort of critical thought into experiences besides those immediately relevant to the author.
This is the root of the irony, and why this essay falls flat in its purpose: the same assumption that validates the author’s experience simultaneously must debunk her conclusions about President Obama. This article becomes a rant—a dismissal of Obama based on “seems” and sociology. Neither of those are sufficient. In the end, the problem with “The Problem...” was a lack of empathy—not for me, nor for white people, but for the President of the United States, a man I hold in high esteem.
On the other hand, reader Blake is “so thankful for Ms. Cottom’s wonderful analysis, which does well to correct some of Mr. Coates’s rose-colored hagiography of Obama.” This next reader, Janet, is far more scathing of the president:
Obama has been one of the greatest disappointments of my life.
I’m a black woman. I voted for him twice and believed in him. I acknowledge that when he took office, the odds were mightily against him: white Congressmen viewed with contempt his best efforts at compromise and refused to cooperate with him. Yet President Obama stubbornly refused to allow his faith in the inherent goodness of whites to falter. He refused to allow himself to get heated up in righteous rage, to scare the living shit out of his enemies.
His “coolness” extended to foreign policy. He refused to be a president renowned for continued war. Peace would reign under him, he insisted. But as I watched him order drone strikes on presumably “enemy” targets, which also killed scores of innocent civilians, as I watched him tolerate Assad’s abominable atrocities, as I watched him leave Guantanamo open, and finally, as I watched him behave ever so diplomatically in his meeting with Donald Trump—a man who questioned Obama’s birth, for Heaven’s sake—I thought:
You’ve got this all wrong. Obama is not a cool man. He’s a coward masquerading as a reasonable man.
Despite McMillan Cottom’s assessment, Obama knew his whites, and he knew them damn well. He knew that what they feared most was an angry, passionate black man. He had absorbed the fears of white people and was determined to allay them—by not sweating any kind of stuff, small or big, and by not allowing the whites of his eyes to radiate rage over indignities voiced against him, his wife, his children, and his office. He would be “cool,” no matter what.
Obama knew very well what whites feared in a black man who got righteously angry, who showed passionate outrage over indignities expressed brazenly in his face. He knew that they wouldn’t care one bit that his anger and outrage were justified. They feared that an angry, outraged black man would become—let’s not be cute here—violent. Who could predict how such fierce emotions in a black president would express themselves, especially against the white race among whom were to be found his greatest enemies? Obama wouldn’t allow even the possibility of such a fear to arise in the hearts of “his” white people.
Predictably, blacks during Obama’s eight-year presidency were ignored. He was afraid to identify with any of them except Michelle and his daughters (“safe” blacks like him), lest “his” whites draw a conclusion he dreaded: Ah, he is, after all, one of them. Obama wanted to be seen as a person who was above race—in mindset, character, and conscience. But trying so hard, and for so long, to live above race left no energy to invest in the courage to be a man, in the highest sense.
One more reader, Clark, defends Obama by making a case for pragmatism:
Sometime in the spring of 2004, a friend of my mother’s who lived in Illinois told me about Barack Obama. Shortly thereafter I read his memoir before he gave his speech at the DNC that summer. The fact that I was a relatively early Obama adopter has been and always will be a source of pride. Since then I graduated from college and worked as a field organizer on his 2008 campaign, interned in his White House in law school, and volunteered on his 2012 campaign. You will be hard pressed to find a bigger Barack Obama partisan than myself. I could barely stomach the thought of not having him in public life when I thought Hillary Clinton would be his successor; the thought of Donald Trump succeeding him is frequently nauseating.
I thought that laying out my perspective and biases up front would be helpful given that I disagree with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s great essay. She writes:
My first black president seems to think that he can raise his daughters to believe in systemic racism without legitimizing the idea of systemic reparations. He thinks that he can be his brother’s keeper without changing the world that keeps his brothers in bad jobs, poor neighborhoods, bad educational options, and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My first black president seems to think he can have black cool without black burden. For all his intimacies with his white mother and white grandparents, my first black president doesn’t appear to know his whites.
I think what Cottom misses is that there is a huge difference between what President Obama thinks and what he can say and that is largely because of confusion over his role. President Obama is a politician. His ultimate goal is to wield power to improve people’s lives as much as possible. The way you do that is not by pointing out and acknowledging inconvenient racist truths of the past. The way you do that is by offering “catnip” to white voters—and evangelical voters, and gun owners, and all sorts of people with whom you may disagree; that is how you build winning coalitions in order to govern.
President Obama is not an essayist like Cottom or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their goal is to write fierce, persuasive, truthful, resonant articles that help us understand the world. And they do their jobs phenomenally well. But their jobs are entirely different than the President’s. If Cottom or Coates wrote an article in the voice that Obama speaks, they would be fired; and if Obama spoke about the world as Cottom and Coates do, he would be the smartest legislator in the Illinois State Senate.
I understand the desire to want to have the leader of the free world speak to one’s lived truth. It is empowering to hear your thoughts and life experiences given the voice and weight of the Presidency of the United States. And, as a straight white male, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for black Americans to see their best chance of having the authority of the office speak to that truth, only for it to slip through their fingers.
But I don’t think we can say that Obama doesn’t “get it.” For instance, the president said to Coates:
But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the GI Bill, and didn’t have a problem with the [Federal Housing Administration] subsidizing the suburbanization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.
Do we think a man as brilliant as Barack Obama, a person who could say that, doesn’t understand the implication of that line of argument?
As much as I would love to have the experience, I am not privy to what he says to Michelle or Valerie [Jarrett] or Marty [Nesbitt]. I suspect he would be more inclined to follow his above argument to its logical conclusion in their company. And as much as it pains me to say it, that is likely for the best. I would rather have had him as my president than my confidant (though if you’re free, call me Barack!).
I would argue that Barack Obama made a trade. In exchange for not speaking to the full extent of black America’s truth, he chose to wield as much power as he could. As a result (for the time being, at least), the rate of uninsured Americans is at an all-time low, we have in place an international plan to combat climate change, marriage equality is the law of the land, we have opened up relations with Cuba, two wars ended, the American auto industry was saved, the leading terrorist was brought to justice, the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine is more equal, and more Americans are receiving commutations following the unjust and racist prosecution of the drug war.
I suspect that as Obama leaves office, he will be more likely to speak without filter. But he will always be a political animal, so we will likely never know a fully unbound Barack Obama. And I am happy with the trade he made. We are going to miss him more than we know.
On this final MLK Day of Barack Obama’s presidency, many readers are reflecting on the rapid ascendance of the little known Illinois state senator with a funny name. Emily looks back to February 10, 2007:
I watched Barack Obama announce, in Springfield, IL, that he would run for president. I think it was a Saturday morning. It was a time when I don’t usually have the television on, so it was just chance that I saw this brazen guy who I’d never heard of. I thought he was impressive—but I thought no way: too young, unknown, and black.
It didn’t take me long to get on board. At age 52, I made my first contribution to a presidential campaign and I voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time.
I see that President Obama is not perfect, but he is perfect to me. So is Mrs. Obama. I’ve seen his weakness, and at times I wish he’d been tougher or had fought harder or dirtier. But I have never wavered in my respect, admiration, and support for him.
He bridged a divide and exposed a greater divide. I hate the ugliness that has been exposed from having a black family in the White House. I hate it, but maybe it was necessary. Maybe it brings forth the fight that we need to take the next step that is long overdue in this country.
Kristal was won over by Obama’s 2008 race speech in Philadelphia:
When Barack Obama entered the presidential contest in 2007, I didn’t think he had enough experience navigating the intricacies of Washington politics. Plus, Hillary Clinton, then and now, had detailed strategic plans to implement her vision for America, so I supported her in the primary. Her campaign slogans may not energize others, but her well-thought-out and realistic strategies excite the hell out of me!
Everyone, even my closest friends, bashed me for supporting Hillary over Barack. I am an outspoken, African American woman who angrily witnessed much of the civil rights movement as a precocious child watching TV news and reading Time magazine. How could I support a White woman over a Black man? Well, when it comes to electing a President, I have no interest in electing someone based on race. I vote based on if I believe their policy positions are achievable and desirable.
After Obama’s “more perfect union” speech in March of 2008, I started to believe that having someone lead America who recognized the counter-productiveness of our focus on race was almost as good as having a president, like Hillary, who had in-depth plans for elevating our society, so I enthusiastically supported Obama in the election.
Here’s that famous speech in full:
Cindelyn converted to being an Obama supporter the following month:
I will never forget the first time I saw Senator Obama in the crowded gym on a cold dreary rainy day in April 2008. I had just driven from Montana to take a new job in the town where my sons were born and raised. The high school where Obama was conducting his town hall meeting was the alma mater of both of my sons. Being in that space was bittersweet for me because I was remembering a graduation with my husband and a graduation as a widow.
I voted for Obama because of that town hall meeting. I voted for Obama because in that space I witnessed a Christian man who listened with his whole body. I witnessed a man who spoke his political talk and then answered the question asked of him. I was a Clinton fan before I entered the town hall and I exited an Obama believer.
Obama discusses his Christian faith on the campaign trail in the following video (and at the 6:20 mark, a pastor asks a question invoking MLK):
Elizabeth deeply wishes Obama’s historic presidency would have been followed by another:
When I was 20 years old, I voted for the first time in a presidential election. I remember standing in line in the middle school gym, brimming with excitement at what for me was doubly historic. As a Women’s Studies student in college at that time—young in my feminism—the significance of voting was not lost on me. I remember thinking of all those generations of women who never had a voice in their country, and I offered a silent prayer of thanks to those brave women who fought so hard to get it. Add to this the fact that I would be casting my vote for the first black president, and it was enough to make me misty as I stepped into the booth.
Four years later I cast the same vote, and as Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee for 2016, I mused to my husband that it was so incredible that my presidential voting record thus far included a black man and a woman. I was less enthusiastic than I had been with Obama, given that I still had a Bernie 2016 sign in my yard and on my car, but I was still sobered by the historic significance of Clinton’s candidacy. I was confident she would win.
But she didn’t win, and now among the numerous social media reactions I’ve seen in the past month, some of my favorites are the ones that call for a third Obama term. “Make Obama President Again!” and “Four More Years!” resonate for reasons beyond the comical. My parents, devout Southern Baptists who have voted Republican since they first cast their vote for Ronald Reagan, reasoned that if Obama were running against Clinton and Trump, they would vote for Obama. They never voted for him when he was actually running, but such was the extent of their lack of confidence in either candidate.
Yet another Obama supporter, Mark, became disillusioned with politics as the years went by:
I was a college senior at Michigan State in the fall of 2008. It was a strange and uncertain time. My discussions in class centered on questions like “Can Obama finally inject some sanity into our foreign policy?” and “What does this economic collapse mean for Michigan and the auto industry?” I bought into the “Hope and Change” message completely.
But I put too much faith in the ability of a single man to change human nature, power structures, and intractable conflicts. In other words, I set myself up for disappointment.
My view of Obama, however, didn’t change all that much. I still view him as a cerebral technocrat who has his heart in the right place, even though his presidency was very different than I hoped. Rather, Obama has changed my own view of the world. I am now deeply pragmatic (bordering on cynical) and I probably couldn’t bring myself to be inspired by a speech even if Martin Luther King came back from the dead to deliver it. Maybe it took this disappointment to expose political reality and shatter my youthful idealism.
This closing segment from MLK’s final speech has inspired untold Americans:
Back to Obama, reader Jeffrey never got aboard “hope and change”:
I did not vote for Barack Obama either time. The fact that he is a black man is almost completely irrelevant and articles arguing about his “blackness” are a waste of time that only concern a small segment of the country (over-educated liberals, once known as the “chattering class”). I wish that I could write as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates or Tressie McMillan Cottom, but I will express my views here.
In 2008, I did not vote for Barack Obama because I saw him as a person without accomplishments. In the short time he was in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate, he had no major bills nor courageous stands. He speaks well with the use of a teleprompter but is not a good off-the-cuff speaker compared to Alan Keyes (his opponent for U.S. Senate). His campaign was run brilliantly on a theme of “Hope and Change,” but since that was never defined, Obama was an empty vessel into which everyone poured their own expectations.
John McCain, in contrast, had a lifetime of standing for something—and, in the case of torture, against something. McCain’s concession speech was gracious and I hoped that great things could be accomplished. However, I did not believe, as NPR commentators kept repeating, that “everything is changed.” Barack Obama is not the Messiah who would change human nature.
Some highlights from Obama’s victory speech in 2008:
Sam also didn’t support Obama at the polls but grew to admire him immensely:
I did not vote for President Obama in 2008 or 2012 because of his party affiliation, not for any particular person reason. I am white and was glad to have a black president because it spoke to America’s progress, but I would have rather had the first black president be a moderate Republican.
I wish that Obama had been more himself and not have let himself and his politics get defined by his opponents. Perhaps if he had surrounded himself with a more pragmatic team he could have gotten more legislation passed and enacted. It seemed that he simply pulled back and waited out his opponents and then both sides blamed each other and everyone seemed small.
There were times during the 2016 campaign when he seemed far from presidential. I hated that. No matter who our president is, I want that person to be presidential and have the entire country at heart—not a party, not a wing, not a demographic slice of the pie.
But after the election, he became what I had hoped he would have been for the past eight years: wise and embracing. I will miss him and his family—not because he was my guy or cool or black, but because he demonstrated an overall respect for the office and was an excellent role model for families of all races.
This next reader, LTaylor, touches on the “respectability politics” that peppered Obama’s presidency:
In this multicultural society we live in, it would be irresponsible for one race to feel that the president failed them. I am an African-American mixed-race person who refuses to blame another man for the shortcomings in my life. Change begins in the home, with the parent/parents teaching their children about money and its value. “Hood rich” people in many urban areas think being rich is driving a nice car, or the amount of gold hanging around your neck or in your mouth. There are job opportunities out here, but there are many who feel they are above working these jobs. These are the same people who complain that the government is not doing anything for them.
This lack of responsibility as well as lack of knowledge about money and value is what is holding many black people back, not Barack Obama. If you want to change your state of being, first change your state of mind.
From the time he was sworn into office on January 20, 2008, Obama had everything stacked against him. How many times in previous administrations has the term “debt ceiling” come up? Honestly, I had never heard of the term until the government was talking about shutting down. There was so much opposition in Congress—rejecting every budget, every plan for infrastructure improvements to this country. Honestly, if Obama were given a decent chance to make significant changes, maybe many would feel differently.
Like so many, I passionately supported Obama in 2008, donating what little I could to his campaign (my first time ever doing so for a candidate) and spending much of November 9th in joyful tears. Soon after that, it became clear that Obama was determined to reach a “compromise” with a party that wanted no compromise with him, on any issue, and I wanted him to stop talking about “reaching across the aisle” and start addressing us—the people who voted him in to, well, basically overturn injustice. A friend told me, perplexed, that leftists who supported Obama seemed to hear something different from his actual words. “He never said he was on the left,” my friend tried to remind me. “He’s pretty firmly in the center.”
I will miss Obama’s eloquence, his humanity, his capacity for empathy, and, lastly, the nigh-superhuman level-headedness which, until these transcripts, I did not totally respect. Rage changes the world, I thought, not level-headedness. And while, again, I still believe that, I think there’s much to be learned from his understanding that for passion to ignite serious change, it has to take a well-informed shape. President Obama understands rage, but he knows we have to direct the blaze if it’s going to clear the path for something new.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party.
In an extraordinary condemnation, the former defense secretary backs protesters and says the president is trying to turn Americans against one another.
James Mattis, the esteemed Marine general who resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018 to protest Donald Trump’s Syria policy, has, ever since, kept studiously silent about Trump’s performance as president. But he has now broken his silence, writing an extraordinary broadside in which he denounces the president for dividing the nation, and accuses him of ordering the U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis writes. “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.” He goes on, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
In the time that U.S. deaths have increased from 100 to more than 100,000, the S&P 500 has gone up 20 percent.
In an age punctuated with almost biblical chaos—plague, brutality, and surreal images of the president posing with a holy book he fumbles like a strange cut of meat—there has been one queasy and bizarre constant: “... and stocks rose.” On Wednesday, U.S. deaths from COVID-19 officially surpassed 100,000, and stocks rose. On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that GDP plummeted nearly 5 percent in the first three months of the year, and stocks rose. Over the weekend, Americans took to the streets of large cities and small towns to protest the killing of George Floyd and call for an end to years of police brutality and systemic racism against black Americans, as their mostly peaceful movements were often attacked by police and beset by chaos tourists smashing the windows of local stores. And stocks rose.
America needs to rethink its priorities for the whole criminal-justice system.
What are the police for? Why are we paying for this?
The death of George Floyd and the egregious, unprovoked acts of police violence at the peaceful protests following his death have raised these urgent questions. Police forces across America need root-to-stem changes—to their internal cultures, training and hiring practices, insurance, and governing regulations. Now a longtime demand from social-justice campaigners has become a rallying cry: Defund the police. This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and black people in particular, society needs fewer of them. But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities.
Demonstrators are hammering on a hollowed-out structure, and it very well may collapse.
The urban unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s was more intense than the days and nights of protest since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman. More people died then, more buildings were gutted, more businesses were ransacked. But those years had one advantage over the present. America was coming apart at the seams, but it still had seams. The streets were filled with demonstrators raging against the “system,” but there was still a system to tear down. Its institutions were basically intact. A few leaders, in and outside government, even exercised some moral authority.
In July 1967, immediately after the riots in Newark and Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a commission to study the causes and prevention of urban unrest. The Kerner Commission—named for its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois—was an emblem of its moment. It didn’t look the way it would today. Just two of the 11 members were black (Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP, and Edward Brooke, a Republican senator from Massachusetts); only one was a woman. The commission was also bipartisan, including a couple of liberal Republicans, a conservative congressman from Ohio with a strong commitment to civil rights, and representatives from business and labor. It reflected a society that was deeply unjust but still in possession of the tools of self-correction.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.
Ibram X. Kendi and Yoni Appelbaum will discuss policing, protests, and this moment in history, live at 2 p.m. ET on June 4. Register for The Big Story EventCast here.
It happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.
On May 19, 1896, TheNew York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.
Lessons from Frederick Douglass on the tortured relationship between protest and change
In America’s house divided, racism—its structures and its individual acts—is tearing us apart in what feel like irreparable ways. On top of that, more than 106,000 Americans are dead from a virus that’s still raging, nearly 40 million others are unemployed, and hundreds of businesses as well as police buildings and vehicles are burning in American cities. As small but violent groups peddle conspiracy theories and wish for some kind of civil war, the country’s civic bonds are threatening to unravel.
At the heart of the protests over the recent police killings that have swept the nation is Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s depraved rhetoric, his vile racism, his willful ignorance, his vicious contempt for the free press, his extraordinary mishandling of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his preening with a Bible while trying to militarize Washington, D.C., are the template on which incidents such as those in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Brunswick, Georgia; and New York City’s Central Park have exploded into public consciousness. Authoritarians thrive on chaos and on sowing distrust in institutions, and Trump has done both. We need some historical grounding.
The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others.
Six weeks ago, Ahmaud Arbery went out and never came home. Gregory and Travis McMichael, who saw Arbery running through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Georgia, and who told authorities they thought he was a burglary suspect, armed themselves, pursued Arbery, and then shot him dead.