As we gear up for the 2012 Presidential Campaign, I am reminded of how one of the most vocal "liberal white supporters" of Obama spoke about his leadership a few months ago. Chirs Matthews, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC tried to compare President Obama to President Kennedy, and it struck a nerve with me.
For African Americans who supported President Obama in 2008, we also have shared some of the burden of the criticism he has received. As we renew our support for his re-election in 2012, we must reject comparisons that even the most well-meaning white supporters make when the inevitable evaluation of his effectiveness arrises. We must form and articulate our support in the context of our current world view, and not let others define our first Black President for us.
Below is my response to Chris Matthews that I think is worth revisiting.
Host of "Hardball"
I know you get a lot of email, and I hope you get to read this one.
I love your show, and I watch regularly, but recently -- since you have started to promote your new book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero -- you seem to have slipped into a time warp, a time when America was run by a good old boy network of rich white guys. You speak often of the ways that Jack Kennedy led... telephone conversations with congressional leaders, meetings over brandy and cigars, informal gatherings with face-to-face encounters with power brokers, undocumented conversations full of winks and nods that ignored the weak and powerless, and mythological arm-twisting that never saw the light of day. All of this was masked by Jack Kennedy's eloquence and lofty speech making.
You speak of President Obama as "not leading us." You want him to "tell us what to do" - implying that we loyal Americans will follow him... even to the moon. The basis of your well-meaning constructive criticism of President Obama (I view you as one of his supporters) seems to be rooted in what many progressive whites often refer to as the "post-racial image of President Obama." Additionally, you seem to have been asleep like Rip Van Winkle for the past 20 years... and don't understand the powerful connecting capability of the Internet.
First, the "post-racial" label has never been bought into by those of us who are supposed to benefit from this new era of enlightenment. As a 65 year-old African American male, I cried the day that Kennedy was shot. I got goose bumps when I listened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech live. It wasn't a Social Studies or English Literature project. I heard Jack Kennedy say, "Ask not what your country can do for you...ask what you can do for your country."
For Blacks listening to Jack Kennedy, we knew that challenge wasn't speaking to us. We were certainly hopeful that he and Bobby could really pull off some measure of progress. Kennedy's speech was in 1961, and MLK's speech in 1963 responded: "It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds'."
Martin Luther King's dream "... that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has been misunderstood to mean "post-racial." What he dreamed about was a day when America would be "post-racist." There is a difference. Let me tell you what the reality of "post-racial" is in America where the rubber meets the road for Black people every day:
- It means disavowing my African heritage. It means I can no longer say "I'm Black and I'm proud." I get accused of reverse racism (what a joke) and fostering two Americas. It is okay to be Irish American, or Polish American, or Anglo American... but proclaiming that I am proudly African American invokes wrath (think Michelle Obama during the 2008 Presidential campaign).
- It means that when disparities are the clear result of "White racial privilege" I cannot point them out, for fear of being accused of playing the race card.
- It means that I must abandon the colloquial dialect of my urban cousins so that I can be perceived as "not like them." It is okay for young White kids to throw in a few "rappers lines" for fun. But not for me.
- It means that when I am smart, well-educated and articulate, I am accused of being "elitist" - not by poor Blacks, but by the likes of Hillary Clinton (in 2008), and now Rick Perry.
- In many ways it means that I must allow myself to be "painted white". That means, my value is not related to the diversity that I bring to the table, but how well I adopt White cultural mannerisms.
P.S. You slipped into that mode following one of President Obama's speeches to a joint session of Congress, with the remark (paraphrased) "... When I closed my eyes, I forgot he was Black."
- Being "post-racial" is not a character trait that Black people aspire to. What it should be is a manner of conducting business and relationships that does not discount the ethnic heritage of the other participants. It is a transactional quality, not a character trait.
Now, as to the leadership style of Barack Obama, he must walk the tightrope of the "post-racial" label while appealing to the nation to follow him. You cannot imagine how difficult that is. You say he doesn't call to meet with congressional leaders. In the good old days, those same leaders understood the "power" of the White house and "sought opportunities to be included in ‘big f----king deals." Now the Speaker of the House doesn't return his calls until he feels like it. Kennedy didn't have to go looking for them. He had muscled his way into the good old boys club, and knew where the levers of power were. Democrats and Republicans alike were in the same old boys clubs, or at least allowed the opposition to visit. These opponents don't want to make any deals with President Obama, including many within the Democratic Party. What hammer does he have to wield to whip them in line?
You say he is isolated in the White House. The power he used to get there was the mobilization of a new crop of voters and disenfranchised voters who were newly energized. These new "virtual supporters" are not highly visible. But we have forged a strong support relationship with President Obama. I count myself among them. I watch his YouTube Weekly Presidential Address each week. I visit Whitehouse.gov regularly to better understand the White House position on issues. I am on several mailing lists from the Obama team. I don't rely on the good old boys to keep me informed. I volunteer to knock on doors, and make phone calls. Support for Obama is rebuilding now at the grass roots level BECAUSE he has abandoned the back room back-stabbers, and appealed directly to his "virtual supporters." These supporters have learned the lessons of 2010, and they will rebound stronger than before. He doesn't lead the way that Jack Kennedy did.
The old guard has stone-walled him at every turn, to the point of him being defined as weak by his "virtual supporters." His negotiating lever is the legion of voters who are now being defined as "the 99%." He hasn't embraced them fully yet, but the new strategy that he has embarked on to "run against congress" has produced some early indicators that should not be ignored. A Washington Post Article indicates that small donor support already outpaces the 2008 campaign. He is a new leader for a new generation of supporters.
Your recent interviews and analysis of his leadership seem paternalistic, not journalistic. Instead of analyzing his approach in the context of a highly obstructionist opposition, you seem to want to resurrect Jack Kennedy. This ain't Camelot. Or is it that you are just trying to sell books?
I hope this helps to raise your awareness of a blind spot you have regarding President Obama. I look forward to a more open-minded observation of President Obama as a leader.
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