Coming into office, President Obama, as the first president of African-American descent, was handed a grand opportunity to move us ahead in political discourse in general and race relations in particular.
With regard to race, not only did he fail to move us forward, he actually took us backward. This is no bare claim. One can simply look at current events across the U.S. and see which direction we have moved. Though the President had many opportunities, Harvard professor Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin among others, the clearest opportunity was Ferguson. Immediately after that shooting he could have come out and said “I choose to believe that Officer Wilson responded to the circumstances immediately in front of him, not to the color of Michael Brown’s skin, and I will continue to believe that unless and until the evidence shows otherwise.” That would have been the high road, setting the pattern for all of us to follow – that we should judge the situation not by the color of the man’s skin but by the content of his character. But the 44th President of the United States chose instead a different path. He chose to put the focus on skin color. He chose not to calm the situation but to stoke the flames of anger and division.
It is also worth a look at his earlier, telling comment about the Trayvon Martin case, “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” These words, perhaps intended as solace, reveal a taste of bitterness and resentment. These were the words of a man perhaps not yet ready to release an old grudge, searching for words above that grudge, but delivering words that could not hide the feelings underneath.
In every such situation, whether he was speaking of racial concerns or “violent extremists” he seemed compelled to prompt Americans to restrain themselves, belying his belief that America is bigoted by its very nature, requiring constant reminders to set aside that bigotry. In fact, after the Charleston, SC shooting of nine blacks by one disturbed white man, while the families of the victims were forgiving the killer, President Obama talked about America’s “legacy of slavery” saying it is “still part of our DNA. We’re not cured of it.” He was left clinging to a past that no longer exists, unable to walk us into Martin Luther King’s Promised Land even though he stood right at the gate.
Rather than move us forward, his words and deeds reached back in history, taking us all back with him. Sadly, there is no evidence he saw the direction he was taking us.
With regard to political discourse, consider the partisan rancor that Obama, in his final SOTU address, wistfully regretted. Yet that regret apparently resided in his failure to cure the other side of their rancor, not in curing his own. He said, “But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice,” which was clearly directed not inward but at the Republicans who he believes are all motivated by malice and has said so in many ways on many occasions.
Yet, in the very same speech, just paragraphs distant from his longing for less rancor, he doubled down on his derision for the Republicans in a riff on climate change “Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating … almost the entire scientific community and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
Through the entire course of his tenure, he was somehow oblivious to his part in creating the rancor. He could not see that his own use of divisive language contributed to the divisiveness. One need only Google for examples of his derisive descriptions of Republicans.
One final yet simple illustration of Obama’s inability to rise to the office was with the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time turning this into a political issue, stating immediately that any nomination Obama offered would not even be considered. McConnell’s premature positioning was both stupid politically and insensitive personally. But his unforced error gave President Obama an opportunity to show he was the bigger man, and once again, the President came up short. In his brief initial statement about Justice Scalia, he could have simply spoken about Scalia’s life and career and left it at that. If asked about the nomination, the response could have been “now is not the time for that.” It would have set a higher tone for the entire ordeal, it would have shown Obama to be above the pettiness, and it would have shown due respect for Justice Scalia and his family. But Obama, at a moment when grace was prescribed, just could not restrain his urge for a comeback.
Throughout his presidency, Obama was, simply put, stuck. He was stuck on what was wrong with the America he saw, and he couldn’t let it go. He led off his presidency on a tour to let the world know he saw the imperfections they saw and that he was right about America’s racism. Fixing it, eliminating it, reducing it, seem to have been beyond his thought horizon and certainly beyond his ability.
Barack H. Obama, 44th President of the United States, was so focused on what was wrong with America, he couldn’t shift into making it right. This left him dwelling in the past and dithering in pettiness, all too often choosing the low road rather than leading us to the promise of his election. He was simply unable to meet the grand opportunity placed in his hands.