Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dangerous Road Before Barack Obama

I found a piece James Baldwin wrote called "The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King." He wrote it in 1961 when MLK was starting to gain national attention and it was a combination of a profile of seeing King in 1958 and 1961. He noted how he was then and now while assessing his role leading the ever-changing civil rights movement. In typical Baldwin fashion, he used MLK to repaint a history of Black leaders and point at the shift in the movement becoming more student-led which led to the dangerous road that he anticipated for the icon.

It immediately made me think of Barack Obama and how he's easily similar to King paralleling him from 2004/2008 to now. It's made me wonder how times have changed and how Obama is seen differently 2 years later. 

He came in with much fanfare but now comes on the heels of a harsh rejection of his policy with the GOP's dominant midterm victory. So "in the spirit of Jimmy" (c) Kidz in the Hall, I present to you: The Dangerous Road Before Barack Obama.

Two years removed from a historic election, Barack Obama isn’t the same man we elected in 2008. His face is grizzled. His eyes weary. Hair a bit white. His voice firm yet tired. The leader of an impatient public who sent him a message this week by electing 60 Republicans and giving them control of the House of Representatives. The Senate still has a Democrat majority but they lost some crucial seats as well.

It’s the natural progression of a President – hopeful optimist to stone cold realist trying to keep that passion. It’s even harder when you’re the first Black/bi-racial man to hold the job and you aren’t just running the country, but being a litmus test for future Black candidates/politicians.

Throw in that he’s seen as somewhat out of touch and facing constant criticism from the right AND left and he had every reason to look defeated on November 3 after the Democrats failed their midterm.

Is it fair? That’s not really the question because we know the answer. It’s not fair that people expect way more of him but blame the fervor two years ago. It’s not fair he faced the greatest challenge since FDR took office in 1932. People expected magic but didn’t know that politics is hard work where things are accomplished not only with a bully pulpit but making deals. 

Never mind that undoing 8 years of George W Bush would be a hard task for Abraham Lincoln and FDR put together. It’s insane to expect dramatic help in only a quarter of that time. But I digress, this isn’t about the public or the Tea Party’s ignorance or the factors behind him.

This isn’t even a normal critique of the man because I’m more interested in what he will do, not what he has or hasn’t done. If Obama thought the last two years were difficult, the next two will be worse.

He faces more competition in the House to get things done. He has senators and congressmen committed to make sure he loses the 2012 election. It makes me wonder if he’s saying to himself: “I tried with the bailout. I tried by getting us out of Iraq, focused on Afghanistan. I’m even going on ESPN, The Daily Show and The View to show that I’m just like these folks. What more can I do?”

Somehow, he lost that connection. Or at least the appearance of it. We know that the 1st rule of politics is how things LOOK, not what they are. FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton had it. George Bush never had it. He looks/talks like an everyday guy who loves sports and would be down for a drink or two but where is that leadership moment that says “I get you” or “Follow me, I got this.”

He still commands a presence when he’s in a room but that magnetism is either lost or has become so commonplace that folks want something different.

The main disappointment I have with him is that I think he’s being held back. Held back from doing more than tough talk or going after certain folks. I believe Obama’s a naturally calm person who measures his words carefully. But I also think he’s too measured as if he doesn’t want to offend folks. He calls out nonsense from time to time but it seems like he walks a thin line as if he’s afraid of how’s he perceived.

Such is life for the Black pioneer. Look at Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, MLK – all of them crossed into uncharted waters and they all faced extraordinary pressure. Their shoulders were heavier than we possibly could imagine. Jackie and Curt died before turning 55. MLK was weary before 40. Most Black folks who were the 1st to cross had to be careful early on. They had to face the abuse knowing that it would be easier for those who came after. Obama is only the latest to carry that burden and even in the 21st century, the pressure of history repeats itself. 

The gift of Obama’s words was that he inspired people. He empowered them in a way they hadn’t felt. He used his voice to connect folks and comfort them in their ability to dream again. It was something new and exciting.  It started in 2004 at the DNC and then got even more incredible in 2007-08 hearing him campaign.

What made him so unique was that he spoke to people in a way they could relate. A man of a diverse background who represented the hope of America coming together despite our differences.  He was a liberal fantasy, conservative nightmare and a living "American Dream" of unity - black and white. Polished yet urban. Young and vibrant.

James Baldwin said of MLK’s speaking: “He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect – indeed he insists on it.” This, he said, made MLK’s speaking so great and the same could be said for Obama in my opinion. He challenged people, didn’t just tell them what they wanted to hear but encouraged them to do something about it.

We saw this with the More Perfect Union Speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap. We saw this on Father's Day as he chastised the lack of Black fathers. It came from a place of understanding, firmness, passion and conviction. The More Perfect Union speech was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever heard and led me to believe this was a new Black leader who didn't sugarcoat yet still served something worth eating.

All of that is prologue. The real goal now is how he takes this cold reality slap, wakes up and rediscovers a new identity. Because he needs a new purpose and a rethinking his strategy.

I still believe he can be a great President. The effects of his policy will start to be felt next year. There is still plenty to look forward to. But all that matters is what he can do in the next two years. The goal now is 2012.

The mission of the GOP – as stated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – is to get him out of office.  His mission is to prove himself re-electable (as well as convince others to make the case for him). This won’t be easy and it’s going to be harder without full control of Congress but this is where Bill Clinton had to succeed 16 years ago.

The road is indeed dangerous, getting rougher by the day as the hard work of 2008-2010 threatens to be repealed right before it takes effect. But he can determine the course if he takes control once again. He can’t use only his words anymore; he must take the wheel and show it.

Baldwin said of MLK that he has “the grave responsibility of continuing to lead in the path he has encouraged so many people to follow.”  This is Obama’s task now after the midterm elections. He has to keep picking his battles but he has to show his fight/his team building/mettle.  It is up to us not just to watch, but remember that we must WORK to make our country.

We play a role in the how the road is affected as well and the less bystanders/more participants determines how the next two years shape up.


  1. I completely agree about the tone of Obama's responses to the onslaught of ignorance. I felt the same about McNabb's lightweight responses to the Shanahan BS last week.

    Times like that, I understand Jesse saying he wanted to go testicular to ignite a stronger response.

    It will be a tougher road for Obama. He's strong & will stay the course. I'm not surprised that ig'nant white folks are so outraged by Obama. But I am surprised that some of the smarter ones have gone so far to derail a president more for his appearances than his policies.

  2. It's funny the comparison between Obama and McNabb - both mild-mannered, firm leaders who people want to see more fight out of. No respect for their position and not enough people supporting them. Something's got to light a fire under them to make sure they fight because their jobs depend on it - it's not enough to stay the course, they have to retake control of it.

    Heavy is the head that wears the crown and it's time to wield that power. And it's time for the Dems to not be scared and show some spine along with him. Same with us as supporters