Grading Obama

A journalist from The Root asked me some questions on my views about the President. Rather than answering them separately, I sent an email, whose contents are below. Excerpts appeared on TheRoot.Com.

When President Obama was elected I told my friends that we were going to have to get used to disagreeing with a president we liked. This wasn’t because I was especially cynical about him. It was because it seems to me the presidency is a very constrained office and it is extremely hard, even when you have both houses controlled by your party, to get things done. Despite these difficulties President Obama did, in fact, get a great deal accomplished in the first years of his term, including a revolutionary reform of the government’s role in healthcare provision, and, more recently, a final withdrawal from Iraq. (Both of these things are good for America, I believe, and the first was especially good for black America which is disproportionately underserved by our current healthcare system.) Nevertheless, I believe I have been proved right. On many topics, whatever his own private convictions, the President has done pretty much what a Republican (or most other Democrats) would have done, in ways that are a good deal more conservative than his campaign rhetoric. In dealing with the financial crisis, for example, so it seems to me, his administration has done too little for the poor and too much to please the masters and mistresses of the world of finance. (This is not a particularly original observation: what’s puzzling is that it is apparently controversial in some quarters.)

The presidency also leads even those who are instinctively suspicious of an over-reaching executive to seek to enlarge and protect powers that are democratically suspect: the persistence of Guantanamo and the President’s insistence that he has the right to assassinate US citizens overseas are examples of this, examples that do not distinguish him from others, both Democrat and Republican. I have too little confidence in my own grasp of what is actually possible in the poisonous atmosphere in Washington today, to know whether Barack Obama could have achieved more of the progressive aims I hoped he stood for. And, if I am disappointed, I am not, for the reasons I have mentioned, very surprised. Given the ways in which African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by the Great Recession, the failures of the administration to deliver particularly for the worst of have been particularly unhelpful for that part of the population. As I wrote in the current New York Review of Books, “For example, the median net worth of white families—which stood at a little under $150,000 in 2007—fell by about a third. For black families, who started with a median net worth a little under $10,000, the corresponding fall was close to four-fifths. At the end of the recession, then, the median white family had a net worth of about $100,000; the median black family could claim a mere $2000. Unemployment for people between 16 and 19 years old rose to about 27 percent in the depths of the recession; but the black rate was about double that. Meanwhile, as the recession was beginning, the incarceration rate in the United States rose, for the first time, to one percent. But where for white adults the rate was about one in ninety-nine, the rate for black adults was one in fifteen.”

A weakened President with the House in enemy hands and a majority in the Senate that can be stopped by the rules of that body from doing almost anything is no doubt not in a good position, whatever his own racial identity, to counteract the long-term resistance of most Americans to grasping that we need to do something serious about the racial dimensions of inequality. Those who complain on this account should probably not focus their objections on the President.