Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Obama The Disappointer

On race in America, I miss his former nuance, balance, and hope.

Jul 7, 2023
Barack Obama speaks at a 2008 presidential rally in Selma, Texas. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the old days, I called myself an Obamacon. Horrified by my misjudgment on Iraq, sickened by the Bush administration’s adoption of torture, and desperate for a way forward, Senator Barack Obama seemed preternaturally calm, sane, and liberal in a way I could appreciate and support, if not fully embrace.

But there was one moment I remember very specifically when I realized I was all-in. At a primary fundraiser in May of 2007, Obama referred to the anniversary of the March on Selma, how he’d been there on the bridge, how moving it had been, and then someone said out loud: “That was a great celebration of African-American history.” And Obama turned around and said: “No, no, no, no. That was not a celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history.” That was when I knew he’d be the next president.

And that was the essence of the Obama 2008 appeal: aware of America’s dark, indelible history on race but also bent on transcending it together, black and white, in a narrative of slow but accumulating progress. He deployed his personal narrative to celebrate the country. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible,” he famously said in 2004.

In his classic Philadelphia speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” in response to Jeremiah Wright’s damnation of America, Obama said Wright’s remarks “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” He called Wright’s views — indistinguishable from the critical race theory now regnant among our elites — “views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.”

Once in office, by and large, Obama walked that walk, with his usual unflappable equipoise. His refusal to become a more racially divisive figure disappointed the CRT-left, of course, prompting diatribes from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, among others. He seemed someone who could see where both the right and the left were coming from on race, and sought to synthesize, for the sake of all of us, with hope.

This is a passage well worth re-reading today:

For the African-American community, the path [toward a more perfect union] means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.

But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Where is that Obama today?

As our liberal elites embraced a wholesale repudiation of his vision, as they redefined America as a white supremacist country through and through, diagnosed every disadvantage of African-Americans as solely and entirely caused by “white supremacy,” and demanded crude race discrimination — “equity” — as the only cure … Obama said nothing. Views he once decried as “profoundly distorted” became his party’s core philosophy on race, and the first black president stayed mum.


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