"That One": President-Elect Barack Obama And the Fulfillment of Unreasonable Expectations

Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D.
The day we all thought we’d never see became a reality this week as the nation took a major step toward racial reconciliation by entrusting the country’s government to a black man. President-elect Barack Obama, soon to be President Barack Obama - doesn’t that have a fantastic ring to it - a man who John McCain once called “that one” is now the one who has been charged with leading the nation, over the next four years, and out of a host of global and domestic quandaries.

The significance of this cannot be quantified. As we’ve seen over the last few months, race is still a major barrier in America. Affirming one is not the same as affirming all, and President-elect Barack Obama has now risen to that “special” category to where Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey (at least until she endorsed Barack) all rose. They weren’t viewed in the context of race, being instead viewed as post-racial Supermen or Superwomen, “transformative figures”, transcending race by virtue of their dominating excellence. Their skills and public acceptance won’t allow for them to be limited to their race (by their reluctance to speak to race) and the negative perceptions of their race.

“That one,” President Barack Obama, proved he was special in being able to achieve what few thought was achievable, the first fulfillment of what will certainly be many expectations, some reasonable - many unreasonable - of an Obama administration. Expectations by Blacks, Whites and others, rooted in certain perceptions. The expectations will be larger than the job of President itself.

As we witnessed in this campaign cycle, it’s not that negative perceptions of black people/black communities don’t exist - it’s just many singular examples of excellence rose above what we know to be the constraints of race and racism in America. The perception is that if one is able to do it, all should be able to. In theory, that is correct. In practice, fear of competition and systemic and institutional racism prevent it.

Then there are those who feel that centuries of racial abuse and subjugation should be ignored, a perception that Blacks should “get over” slavery and segregation, despite advantages passed down to them. Blacks who succeed, do so - not by overcoming equal odds but - by overcoming overwhelming odds in avoiding the traps that often prevent the fulfillment of even reasonable expectations. And they are held to a different standard when they do rise to the top.

That’s why this moment is so exceptional. While understanding this great moment in the nation’s history cannot be quantified, it most certainly can be qualified in a very real context as to what we all now expect from the nation’s latest “Superman.” His challenge is greater than that of the others who simply had to transcend sport or entertainment. Barack Obama has to transcend the negative global perceptions of America and the very real socio-economic problems most Americans face. That’s pretty heavy lifting. Regardless of who won, the next President faces a host of unreasonable expectations. President Obama certainly will.

Like most African Americans who succeed in the mainstream, President Obama will be under extreme scrutiny. He will be watched by Whites to make sure he’s not being “too racial” toward Blacks and other minorities. He will be watched by African Americans to make sure he remains true to the game in addressing issues that most adversely impact black communities, namely poverty (which Barack rarely spoke to in the campaign), joblessness, economic subjugation and educational disparities.

The expectations of Blacks and Whites are divergent and in some instances, opposing. The whole debate around wealth redistribution has deep racial roots. President Obama can stick his toe in that water, and maybe his foot, but certainly not his leg, meaning he can help the middle class get out of their economic quandary but reaching too far toward helping the poor and impoverished could be problematic.

Capital reinvestment in Wall Street will be an expectation to revive the economy, but capital access for Main Street, or the “Average Joe (or Jane)” to whom he and McCain so frequently referred during the campaign, is an expectation that many are waiting to see if an Obama administration can fulfill. Then there are the wars that continue, and the ones yet to come, that President Obama will expected to exit with dignity, wars for which the current President has exit strategy - certainly the most unreasonable expectation that President Obama will face. You get the picture. The expectations won’t stop.

Let’s celebrate this phenomenal achievement in American history, but let’s also stay rooted in a reality that President-elect Barack Obama is not Superman - just a man who overcame super odds to beat the systemic, institutional and social structures that served as impediments to achieving what no African American had ever been able to achieve: being elected President of the United States. Now comes the expectation that he will be able to fulfill all of the nation’s unreasonable expectations. We know it is unreasonable to expect he will solve all the nation’s problems. The expectations of this President will be like no other. But we’re glad to see this day, that a black man has the opportunity to, at least, try to fulfill these expectations. God is real.

  • BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is AnthonySamad.com. Click here to contact Dr. Samad.