Perspective on Obama from an “Angry Black Man”

Ishmael Reed goes public with the thoughts many people of color have been expressing mostly among themselves in the face of the left-wing revolt against President Obama. Give this a serious read.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Perspective on Obama from an “Angry Black Man””

  1. Confusion atop confusion. It is true that Mr. Obama can get no traction, but the reasons for this are structural, not personal. There is no point in analyzing any of his personal characteristics. As an individual, Mr. Obama does not exist.

    No individual politician exists. Each is a figurehead for a faction. No votes are cast for individuals. Votes are cast against factions. If you do not understand this, you literally do not know what politics is.

    Mr. Obama is ineffective because his faction is ineffective. They had ONE chance (a window of only a few hours' duration, after the Brooks Brothers riot) and they blew it. They'll NEVER have another; it is not possible to recover from a failure so crisp, so huge, so utter.

  2. I completely agree with Reed, and I think this goes beyond strategy on Obama’s part: an African-American Democrat who was not by temprament especially cool in the face of personal attacks could not get elected in a majority-white district.

    I also pretty much agree with Frank above: the effectiveness of a President is bounded by the effectiveness of the other politicicans in his (someday, her) own party.

  3. While I don't doubt that someone Reed thinks is a leading progressive said the things he puts in quotes, it would be more convincing if Reed had given his or her name. I understand this is the Times, but sometimes one has to break with tradition.

    No serious politician is contemplating primarying Obama. Everyone who has suggested a 2012 Democratic Presidential primary has thought of it as "let's you and him fight."

    Finally, I, at least, and most of the others who have criticized the tax cut deal, have criticized Obama not for keeping his cool, but for losing it, for rushing into a foolish, unproductive agreement with his enemies behind the backs of his allies.

  4. Following up on jim's comment, what progressive could challenge Obama? The only one I can think of is Kucinich, and he's too short to be elected president.

  5. Obama won't be primaried, because Obama proves that voting does not matter, and more voting will not be a credible way to address the problem.

    I agree with Frank Wilhoit that so much focus on Obama's personal characteristics and style is a silly distraction. This isn't about Obama's personal character. But, I disagree as well: Obama and his faction have been tremendously effective! The problem is that Obama is not a liberal, not a progressive; Obama does not work for us. Obama and the neoliberals work for the plutocrats. And, they are very, very effective.

    Lots of folks are very confused about who Obama is, and who and what he is working for, and toward. On the Right, this confusion is comically ridiculous: Obama as a socialist Muslim, etc. But, in the center and on the Left, it is a tragic betrayal and denial of same.

    Obama has made the Democratic Party completely ineffective as an agent of change, confirming and legitimating and solidifying every important policy and achievement of the Bush Administration. The authoritarian state, prosecuting endless war abroad and presiding over the scam-economy of pervasive, predatory business corruption at home, has been made as permanent as it can be. Whether it ends in delapidation or terrible violence or both, the opportunity for rational, peaceful reform has been lost.

  6. How utterly convenient. Mr. Obama cannot denounce the Republican agenda because if he did he would be dismissed as an angry Black man, he'd get a "D" for deportment. What is the president gaining through his "B-" behavior (Mr. Reed is low-balling this grade, by the way)? From where I'm standing the gains are mostly going in one direction, upwards. Take Mr. Obama's framework for extending the Bush tax cuts. He presents it as a solid victory for a tough negotiator. The concessions he received from the Republicans in return for including those at the extreme right tail of the income distribution are twice as large as those he "had to" make. Numbers are funny, though. Here's another way to characterize that same 2:1 ratio: 67% of the benefits go to 98% of workers while 33% go to the highest-earning 2%.

    What Mr. Reed ignores here is the immutable fact that the president shares many of the Republicans' goals, particularly those concerning economic issues. Mr. Obama's primary loyalty is to the ruling class and, as indicated by his repeated actions, he serves them well.

    With respect to Mr. Reed, the African-American community is not monolithic. While there is an element of truth to his argument, his conclusion essentially boils down to the fact that (white) progressive opponents of the president's policy should be aware that people of color are capable of voting against their own economic self-interest, too. Other African-American commentators have long recognized the president for who he is and who he represents:

    in April and May of 2003, I ran across the DLC's “100 to Watch” list for 2003, in which Barack Obama was prominently featured as one of the DLC's favorite “rising stars”. This was ominous news because the DLC was and still is the right wing's Trojan Horse inside the Democratic party.


    It's time for a little less respect for the high and mighty of either party, and a little more action. It's high time for activists inside and outside the Democratic party to look for creative, innovative, sometimes impolite and civilly disobedient ways to reach larger audiences as they speak truth to the powerful. Even and especially when those in power are nominal Democrats.

    Prescient, no?

  7. In many way Mr. Reed is correct:

    The news of white militias arming and amping up…

    March after march of steaming white people with angry signs in DC…

    Fox News' and Limbaugh's incessant shouting of "Socialism" and "New Black Panthers"…

    Was all of a deliberate theme…

    The agitprop all adds up:

    The country was not ready for a black President…

    But was quite pumped and primed for an angry white revolt.

    Yes I believe all this cowed Mr. Obama.

    And it is understandable…

    Even forgivable…

    But someplace between Mr. Reed's:

    "Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right."

    And the other extreme of walking behind John Wayne's horse with a broom dutifully slapping fresh feces into a pan left and right…

    Someplace between those extremes…

    Between the Roosevelt pitbull we wished for and the bipartisan lap dog we got…

    Is the fair and righteous spaniel that we all wanted to see.

    This dog don't hunt.

    And was too easily hunted down…

  8. So if Obama gets angry they'll call him an angry black militant. As opposed to a radical socialist? The only word missing there is "black". The level of obstruction is the same. The difference is that by being too conciliatory and dispassionate when toughness and passion are called for is that he doesn't get the "troops" to stand with him.

    I generally like Obama's cool-headedness. I like having a president who can be intellectually persuasive. There's a time and place for it. But the time for that is NOT when the Republicans go on a work strike until their petty demands are met.

    The deal that was made back when these tax cuts were passed is that they would expire at the end of 2010. The compromise is that we would keep them only for the middle class.

  9. I disagree that Reed's piece is worth serious reading. It was a straw man argument.

    And I’ve thought about them as I’ve listened in the last week to progressives criticize President Obama for keeping his cool.

    Nobody is criticizing Obama for keeping his cool. The progressives that are angry with Obama are not angy with him for not being angry – they are angry at him for not satisfying their own anger at the unshirted bludgeoning the country took under GWB.

    I would count myself as a progressive who is angry at Obama. But it's not because I want to see him yelling, and it's not because I don't acknowledge the value of the significant policy victories during his administration so far, and I certainly don't want to see him primaried. It *is* because he is failing to lead in an area that is both important and where his potential is great: to reshape the political narrative we've been living under since the 80's.

    St. Ronald of Reagan is still adored by the right despite what is, if considered in detail, a pretty spotty record of enacting the priorities of the right. But no matter what he was actually accomplishing, he spoke constantly of, and *for*, the principles that were supposedly guiding him. Obama is doing exactly the opposite: his record on progressive policy priorities is really pretty good. But nobody but readers of blogs like this — which is to say, a tiny minority — knows or cares. What the average American knows is that they live in a world where, when criticized about policy compromises, the president's response is hippie-punching instead of calling the right's priorities what they are: immoral and unpopular.

    So no matter how many great policies Obama will leave behind after one term or two, he will also leave behind a right wing that is still vigorously empowered by the narrative that Reagan left behind. After the disaster of GWB, what we needed was a leader who could chip away at that narrative with a new one of his own, and Obama is failing to do that. It's a failure that's all the more frustrating because he demonstrated to us all, before the election, just how capable of doing so he could be, if only he chose to.

  10. Reagan had so much legacy, because he found ways to undermine the institutional foundations of the Democratic Party and the New Deal coaltion. It wasn't that he successfully bad-mouthed unions, and setup, say, the air traffic controllers, for example; it was that he pushed through deregulation of the transportation sectors in ways that undermined unions, and promoted trade in manufactured goods in ways that undermined industrial unions. Social Security reform was set up as a long con. And, financial sector reforms, such as lighting the savings and loans on fire, never touched him.

    It seems to me that Obama is failing not just on the narrative, but on the substance: he has not done anything to chip away at the bases of right-wing Republican power. The Defense budget is still gargantuan. The financial sector is more powerful and more dependent on predatory practices than ever. His health care reform makes the health insurers more powerful than ever.

    Strategic policy-thinking in the Obama Administration is almost purely neo-liberal, which means clever and corrupt. It epitomized by the tax "compromise", which is just paternalistic enough to almost be acceptable to sincere centrists and wonks, and defensible by PR pros acting with an incompetent and reality-challenged Media, while being wholly destructive strategically. Looking at this policy in the likely political context of the next couple of years, you really have to wonder what they are thinking, if the fix is not in. (I think the fix is in, but we will see.)

  11. piminnowcheez: "So no matter how many great policies Obama will leave behind after one term or two, he will also leave behind a right wing that is still vigorously empowered by the narrative that Reagan left behind. After the disaster of GWB, what we needed was a leader who could chip away at that narrative with a new one of his own, and Obama is failing to do that."

    Seems to me this sums up much of what progressives are really angry about. Despite Obama's many successes in moving the ball forward, even if only slightly, he is excoriated for not moving it far enough. Just like on health care, what he won was a net gain, just as was the tax compromise. In both cases, the alternative would have been worse. But apparently the pride of being able to say "at least we held out for a public option" or "at least we never agreed to tax cuts for the wealthy", was more important.

    Because, as pimin writes, it is the right wing narrative that has grown so powerful, and the real battle is in deflating it. Yet are we seriously expecting a Democratic president of a centrist, big-tent party to single-handedly counter a vast right-wing propaganda machine that has been building in strength for decades? That's not what I elected Obama to do. Sure, a Kucinich or Dean might have one some pyrrhic victories for the base. Bully for them.

  12. I agree with Eli, and to a lesser extent Frank. My problem with Frank's narrative is that I just think it was blazingly ridiculous to think that Obama or a nominal filibuster proof majority in the Senate could turn the Reagan boondoggle around in such a short period of time. But the real failure here isn't Obama's, IMHO, it's his party's — and for that, Frank is exactly right. The fact that so many Dems are unwilling to make the change is the real problem, thus even limiting the extent that the last two years could be called an opportunity. There is an opportunity to keep working at it — but it involves outreach to groups that are probably not part of our day to day lives, like Hispanics and especially young people.

    I do think that Obama's "personal style" is to a large extent the result of the social forces identified by Reed. Every successful black man I know, and almost every succcessful "crossover" black politician, is more like Obama than Jesse Jackson. I think it's useful to at least keep that in mind before screaming that Obama should be more like Truman.

  13. Eli: Just like on health care, what he won

    Obama's contribution to the Affordable Care Act was to sign it. I don't want to minimize this. The act wouldn't have existed unless there were a President willing to sign it. But he cannot be praised for "winning" it. The contents of the act were dictated by Baucus, Dodd, Reid, Waxman and Pelosi (and a few others). Reid and Pelosi got it through Congress.

    Come to that, the White House's main contribution to the stimulus was to reduce its size.

    But I continually see supporters of the President claim as his victories, health care and the stimulus. It not just the Village which constructs its own mythology.

  14. So, is Ishmael Reed's point that if Democrats want someone who will stand up to Republicans, they shouldn't nominate an African-American? Because that seems to be one obvious conclusion to take away from it.

    And, no, I don't believe that, and think Reed's article is just free-form anger and denial.

  15. Eli:

    Yet are we seriously expecting a Democratic president of a centrist, big-tent party to single-handedly counter a vast right-wing propaganda machine that has been building in strength for decades?

    Single-handedly, of course not. But as Reagan demonstrated, a popular, charismatic president can indeed influence the national narrative. It doesn't help all of the other players trying to counter the Mighty Wurlitzer when the president himself sings along to its tune so often. I agree that the policy victories of the administration are net gains; it's not that changing the narrative is more important than those gains, it's that it's ALSO important. What makes Obama so frustrating is that he's clearly capable of it, and we desperately need it. I don't think it makes me a whiny hippy to desire symbolic leadership along with policy wins from my president.

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