Can Do No Wrong

March 23, 2010

I wrote this piece several months ago, as a way for me to think through why such a stark split regarding those who do and don’t support President Barack Obama. Unfortunately for me, I sent it to TheRoot.com, which apparently receives and rejects about 50,000 manuscripts about Obama per hour. But given President Obama’s major political victory in the passage of the historic health care bill, it seems appropriate to post this piece (with some minor changes) considering the obvious divisiveness that this bill and the leaders who represent it have allegedly inspired, at least according to some of our more unhinged American narcissists.

What does it mean to us as a nation – and Black folk especially – if President Barack Obama fails? Now, I don’t mean failure in an absolute sense or failure as defined by the radical conservative fringe. Nor do I mean failure approaching the proportions of President Bush 43. Failure for President Obama in the sense that the change he promised in 2008 and 2009 doesn’t occur by 2013 or 2017. For millions of us, though, Obama can do no wrong, for he’s already done far more than we would’ve expected.

So, what approximately does failure for Obama look like? It depends on how much his promises for change are fulfilled. If unemployment falls below five percent. When the US has adopted a strong policy on climate change, alternative energy and universal health care – and not just universal health insurance. And even with the passage of the health care bill on March 21, we don’t even have that. It’s better than no overhaul at all, but nowhere near universal.

Other meter-sticks for change fulfilled include the possibility that geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, South Asia and North Korea have been curtailed, if not abated entirely. When the growing debt crisis the federal government and the nation faces have been solved. Or if the administration rolls back the expansive powers of the executive branch around intelligence gathering, detaining potential terrorists or use of torture methods. These are the signs of success, and for many, falling short of most of these would constitute failure. Even achieving half of this ambitious but necessary agenda would make Obama one of the top seven presidents of all time.

But for some African Americans, that would hardly be enough. Especially if they feel they’ve been left behind. If communities of color remain besieged with poor schools, poor health care, high crime and high unemployment, Obama’s work would remain wholly unfinished. If African Americans continue to experience inadequate access to living-wage jobs, affordable apartments and homes, and public services across the board, Obama’s presidency would be about what could’ve been. Without addressing these issues – for some African Americans and the rest of the country – Obama’s status and popularity would surely drop.

Yet, President Obama will still be one of the most popular presidents since FDR and JFK. Many, if not most Blacks, would see Obama as a towering beacon that lit up their early twenty-first-century world. So many will take pride in his achievements – however limited – that it would be as if Obama could never fail. His serving as president is – and likely will continue to be – seen as success by default.

That truth is the reason why few African Americans criticize Obama in the public eye. Nobel Peace Prize, a strong State-of-the-Union speech, honorary degrees, meeting with foreign heads of states. Every step is an achievement, every speech an accomplishment. White progressives and conservatives of every stripe fail to understand. Progressives may be invested in Obama. African Americans, though, have doubled down on the president over the past two years. For so many, anything that President Obama makes happen in terms of domestic policy and statecraft is icing on the cake. President Obama will be seen as successful because millions of us will refuse to see any of his mistakes as failures, to see him in any other way.

Even the reactions that I’ve seen to the health care bill’s passage reflect some of this “can-do-no-wrong sense” among African Americans, a mixed blessing reaction among progressives, and signs of the Apocalypse among teabaggers. It is what it is, and there’s not much more to say than that. Except that post-racial America looks very much like the America that I grew up in and have worked in for the past forty years. President Obama can do no wrong. But as Americans, we still seem unable to do much right as a people or by our people.


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