Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Debating the First Black Presidency
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Readers reflect and disagree over Barack Obama and his eight years as President of the United States.

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Obama's Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced, Cont'd

In response to Ta-Nehisi’s cover story “My President Was Black,” Daniel Foster, a contributing for National Review, countered with “Obama’s Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced.” The best reader contribution to this debate comes from Ayana Wilson, who falls somewhere between Foster and Coates:

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:

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:

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.

Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

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.