Can America really afford to abandon Barack Obama and his presidency now?
That is the very basic question that awaits us on Tuesday, November 2 as we Americans go to the polls from New Jersey and Florida, from Nevada and Hawaii, and points in between, to offer a direct citizens’ response on the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidential term.
And what a two years it has been since that historic election on November 4, 2008. Not only is Mr. Obama our first Black, our first biracial, and our first truly multicultural president, but there has always been the grand possibility that his presidency would be the most transformative—politically, culturally, spiritually, and historically—in this long and difficult American expedition we call democracy. More so than Lincoln’s, more so than F.D.R.’s, and more so than Lyndon B. Johnson’s, in spite of the civil rights legislation he pushed through.
For in Barack Obama, if we choose to recall, lies one of the great examples of what America has been, and what America can be:
It is in Barack’s personal and family journey. It is in Barack’s greatest speeches and in his cool swagger (confident walk) to the microphone every time; it is in the monumental healthcare bill he pushed through (yes, I wanted a public option, too, but he did something that can be built upon, just as civil rights laws had to be, and continue to be, built upon). It is in his sincere concern for public school education, for small business owners, and for young people. It is in his nonstop belief that people with vastly differing political views can truly work together.
And it is so clear in his very genuine respect for women, including his open admiration for his equally brilliant wife Michelle, his signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women achieve equal pay, and his hosting the very necessary domestic violence summit just last week.
That is the America we need, the nation we want to see, the one where we voted in record numbers in 2008. An America where everyone is equal, where there are opportunities and possibilities for you and I, regardless of our economic and cultural differences, where anyone can really be president, even the son of a single mother partially raised by his grandparents, as was the case with Mr. Obama.
Yes, I am mad clear that Barack Obama is not perfect, and doubly clear that he is not the savior, nor a savior. Yes, I want the wars to halt in Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible. Yes, I want to see a serious and consistent commitment by our nation to be more environmentally responsible, and more engaged in the global environmental movement. Yes, I want to see a real and lasting regulation of our banks and other financial institutions, and I want to see that Wall Street is no longer permitted to be its own self-governing entity. Yes, I want to see depressing unemployment lines disappear and the legions of people suffering through bad mortgages and hostile foreclosures assisted in ways that will restore their lives—and their faith in America. Yes, I want to see an end to all forms of discrimination, and I don’t believe we should live in an America that tolerates or averts its eyes from racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, religious bigotry, or an inhuman disregard for the disabled.
Yes, I would like President Obama, a self-described “Black man,” to talk about race and racism in America at least once in a while, to use the power of his office and all that he is and all that he means to so many different kinds of Americans to have the kind of “truth and reconciliation” moments that South Africa had after racial apartheid ended there. We’ve never done this in America, despite all of our racial progress. Never.
And, yes, I would like to see a mighty and sweeping “Marshall Plan” for America’s urban areas, one that will deal with everything from HIV/AIDS to violence prevention to housing to rebuilding communities to the prison industrial complex to gentrification, for the people, regardless of race or class.
And I still believe these things can happen. But it is going to take a tremendous amount of work on the part of the Obama administration. And an equally tremendous amount of patience and cooperation on the part of the American people, especially those of us who were with Barack in 2008.
Because ours is a nation, thanks to the mass-media innovations that are cable and satellite television, or facebook and twitter, with an incredibly short attention span. Ours has become a culture of the sensational and the trivial, of reality television shows and sporting events being more important than the local news, of the local news itself being reduced to the sensational and the trivial for the sake of ratings (so they say).
Thus, if we do not actually see something happening, or have not been told that it happened, we don’t believe it has happened. Or then we forget it happened as something else grabs our collars and forces us to look, over there.
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign most likely benefited from this cultural climate because his was the best reality show going for many of us who have never been serious about being civically or socially active, and never will be. And now, two short years later, Barack’s administration has been victimized by this mass media cartel of images and soundbytes, both real and manufactured.
That is why I am so glad Mr. Obama recently admitted his administration has to do a better job of communicating what, precisely, it is doing. You cannot, in the 21st century, speak about this or that policy to an American population weaned on sound bytes and text messaging. It has to be made plain at every turn.
The right-wingers have mostly controlled the conversations about America practically from the moment Barack was inaugurated in January 2009. If you have little to no knowledge of American history, are virtually clueless about current events, are not one to pay attention to the numerous press releases, statements, policies, and initiatives put forth by the Obama administration, then it is not that far fetched that you, be you liberal or conservative or independent, would too become a victim of the barrage of lies livestreamed from the Tea Party, the do-nothing Republicans, and the Fox News Channel.
When I hear people shout “We want our country back!” and see they are mostly White sisters and brothers (and, yes, they are our sisters and brothers in spite of themselves) who would rather blame women, gays and lesbians, people of color, and Latino immigrants for their problems than the super-wealthy folks bankrolling their ignorance and confusion via those omnipresent political ads, I simply shake my head and pray for them. Hard.
For the only thing worse than ignorance is enthusiastic ignorance that can hurt others. And enthusiastic ignorance that would seek to stop history from going forward, merely because it is not on your terms.
And I would add that it is just as foolish for those who elected President Obama to believe that he is going to be the leader of a progressive, multicultural movement in America. Or that he should be. When in our nation’s history has the president ever—ever?—been the leader of a mass movement?
Movements have always come from the people, and the most serious and effective movements always begin locally, wherever you are, and with the issues you feel most passionate about.
Sadly, The Tea Party understands this very well, and has been quite effective at mobilizing their flock, sea to shining sea. Their message is straightforward, their tactics very basic (wreak havoc at every turn, with no real agenda), and they get the importance of communicating by any means necessary. No, we who know better mustn’t reduce ourselves to the simple-minded racism, hatred, and buffoonery of The Tea Party. No, we are better than that. And the America we believe in is better than that.
Yet while the Tea Party has ruthlessly and relentlessly mocked and ridiculed President Obama (and helped to create a climate, honestly, that threatens the president’s life), it is equally disheartening to witness Barack being dissed by so-called progressives and liberals, and just completely abandoned by those in the middle.
Indeed, America’s conservative forces have been so effective in fanning the flames of confusion that many of us are in serious panic mode about these mid-term elections. So we’ve bailed on Barack, we’ve jumped ship. Or we are scrambling, in this late hour, to persuade folks to vote who we hadn’t previously engaged in a significant way since, well, 2008.
I say we do not need to get in the mud of trepidation with the Barack haters, nor should we make peace with despair and anxiety. Some of us have got to join President Obama in taking the long view of America.
The long view means we are going to get past these mid-term elections, regardless of what happens, and that we are going to continue down the path begun, in 2008, of transforming America. President Obama will do some things rights, he will need to be held accountable for others, and, at the end, each of us has got to do our part to help him and his administration.
And to help the America that belongs to us all.
Kevin Powell is an activist, writer, and author or editor of 10 books. Most recently Kevin was a 2010 Democratic candidate for Congress in Brooklyn, New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org