Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay in New York magazine indicted the left for being perennially, loudly and unrealistically disappointed in Democratic Presidents. In Chait’s view, much of the left ignores the constraints on Presidential power (e.g., Congress, of which Drew Westen et al seem to be in ignorance) and doesn’t have the stomach or attention span for the slow, daily grind of governance. He also charges the left with crippling their own leaders with faithlessness and then blaming them when they are thereby forced to compromise with the other side. Chait sees these patterns as almost entirely independent of Obama, being instead a style, outlook and set of norms among liberals that goes back for decades. In short,
Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing.
Related themes were sounded by Nicholas Kristof, who attacked the “hold your nose as you vote” chic fashionable among some leftists (emphasis mine):
Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority — and won eight years of George W. Bush.
All of this is true of a certain type of liberal in the U.S., but I wish Chait and Kristof had taken the time to exempt from criticism the most stalwart segment of liberal America: African-Americans. Perpetually indignant white liberals could learn a lot from them.
The Power of Love
Opinions polls continue to show extremely high approval ratings for President Obama among Black Americans. But even the high proportion of Black people who tell pollsters they “approve” of the President doesn’t begin to capture the feelings that go beyond approval and extend to love and admiration (after all, if you think the President is, you guess, doing okay on balance, you say “approve” to a pollster). It’s not hard to see these intense emotions in many African-Americans if you know where to look.
I recently wrote a piece suggesting that the Obamas should campaign as a couple, which was picked up by some websites with sizable African-American readerships (e.g. Jack and Jill Politics, The Smithian). In that more Black-dominated part of the web, I saw more unreservedly positive comments about the President than I have read in the past year in all of what I suppose are my typically white Internet reading habits. Gone were the usual jibes that Obama is an “Eisenhower Republican” or “plutocratic sellout”. Indeed, many people referred to him (and his wife) as heroes and inspirational leaders, among a number of other cynicism-free superlatives.
It reminded me of an event I attended last year in the East Room of the White House. As a group of us who had worked on the President’s AIDS strategy awaited Obama’s arrival, an African-American woman asked me to give her my spot near the lectern so that she might shake the President’s hand. She had in her purse a glove which her sister had made her promise to put on immediately after any handshake with Obama. Her sister wanted no one and nothing to touch the hand the President had touched until she herself removed the glove and experienced her hero’s touch, even indirectly. I was so touched by her and her sister’s devotion that I moved myself and a few other people out of the way to give her a chance (she got her precious handshake, and left the White House joyfully gloved).
I can hear a few white liberal noses curling at this account of shameless President-love: how fulsome, how unsophisticated, how jejune. But I would say how human, how bravely committed and how encouraging to a President who needs more than truculent, nose-holding liberal voters behind him to accomplish great things.
Why Do African-Americans So Love Barack Obama?
Another story from the White House: Tom McLellan and I were in the White House Mess, taking a new, Asian-American member of the Administration to lunch. The man espied an African-American White House staffer whom he had known years before. They both jumped up in surprise and hugged each other in recognition. And then a second squeeze and loud laughter. As Steinbeck once wrote, I thought I saw the beginning of a tear in their eyes but maybe it was in my own. I knew what that second hug meant: We. Made. It. People of color made it. From slavery and Jim Crow and racial oppression to the West Wing. I will always be grateful to President Obama for making this possible, but as a white person I cannot fully understand experientially what those two fine men and countless other people of color receive in their hearts every time it hits them that the President of the United States is an African-American.
Understanding that reality, I cringe at the white, alleged liberals who call on Obama to acknowledge that his is a failed presidency. They want the first Black President in history to, effectively, announce that he is a bumbling affirmative action baby, apologize for being so uppity as to have ever assumed otherwise and resign in disgrace so that Hillary Clinton or some other qualified (i.e. white) person can lead the party. Would that such white “progressives” were required to focus group their proposal in a locked room with a random sample of 20 African-American women. Fortunately, the President has ignored their call to set back race relations a generation and crush the optimism he has generated among people of color nationally. These attacks on the President, like others, generally go nowhere with African-Americans; indeed they may even strengthen their commitment to him.
But all that said, my own question of why Blacks so love Obama elides the broader reality evidenced by their very high approval ratings of a white Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Blacks have a special place in the hearts for Barack Obama, but fundamentally, if you are a Democratic President, Black people in this country have your back.
What Some White Liberals Could Learn From Black Liberals
Many white progressives have remained loyal to the President they elected. But imagine the situation if all white liberals were as consistently supportive of their Presidents as are Black liberals. President Obama would currently be assured of easy re-election and the Congress would know it, making his negotiating hand infinitely stronger. Democratic donors could re-direct money to Congressional races secure in the knowledge that Obama’s re-election was a lock. Instead, like all Democratic Presidents, Barack Obama knows he is leading an army in which some of the troops (as Chait notes) were calling him a traitor even before he got sworn in and an increasing number are looking to abandon the field. In that situation, a rational commander looks for an accommodation with the other side because he can’t win with a half-committed army versus a fully-committed one. A subset of white liberals are thus creating the conditions for their own disappointment, and for that of those white and black liberals who have kept the faith.
Why aren’t white liberals as consistently supportive of their Presidents as Black liberals? Despite massive, heroic progress in racial equality in the United States, white people still get their way more often or not. And it’s easy to get used to that. Black people, even highly accomplished Black people, are more aware that all change is resisted, good things don’t happen without years of sustained work, and that often you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. They don’t expect a yellow pony for a birthday present and thus they don’t feel that someone has failed them when it isn’t delivered giftwrapped to their door. That makes them the grown-ups of the American left, whom the hold-your-nose set would do well to emulate.