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NY Times Op-Ed, Feb. 8, 2020
Democrats Gave Obama a Free Pass. That Could Hurt Us on Election Day.
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylo

The sting of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 still hangs heavy over the Democratic Party. There has yet to emerge a consensus understanding of the party’s failure to beat an opponent who almost everyone assumed could be defeated. Some have focused on voter suppression, others on Russian interference. Mrs. Clinton continues to blame Bernie Sanders. But missing from the various theories is how Barack Obama’s tenure may also have contributed to voter disaffection because he failed to bring about the transformational changes he promised.

The dramatic contrast between him and his successor, Donald Trump, has, in some ways, created pressure on Democrats to focus only on Mr. Trump’s transgressions while ignoring other factors that may have contributed to his election. As the primary campaign ramped up last summer, for example, party insiders made clear they would vigorously challenge any scrutiny of Mr. Obama’s presidency. “Stay away from Barack Obama,” one said. A former aide to Mr. Obama, Neera Tanden, wrote on Twitter that Democratic candidates who “attack Obama are wrong and terrible.” She added, “Obama wasn’t perfect, but, come on, people, next to Trump, he kind of is.”

The perception of the “perfect Obama” is contradicted by black voter turnout in 2016: It declined for the first time in 20 years, falling to 60 percent from 67 percent in 2012. This surely cannot be attributed only to voter suppression or the lack of an African-American candidate on the ticket — after all, Mr. Obama framed Mrs. Clinton’s run as his so-called third term. It’s safe to presume that disillusionment with Mr. Obama’s record, even as people continued to admire him personally, is, to some degree, reflected in these turnout figures.

Plus, growing concerns among African Americans about the persistence of racial inequality and discrimination, even years into Mr. Obama’s tenure, belie notions that a black candidate alone was all that was needed to mobilize black voters. After all, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker struggled to gain traction among black voters in part because of a lack of clarity on how their platforms could translate into an improvement in the quality of life for African Americans.

Black voters’ attitudes about the impact of the Obama administration are complicated because they hold Barack and Michelle Obama in such high regard. As president, Mr. Obama enjoyed extraordinarily high approval ratings among African-Americans, even as black unemployment remained high. His personal popularity notwithstanding, African-Americans’ ratings of public policy, race relations and the state of the country declined over his presidency.

In 2009, 71 percent of African-Americans thought Mr. Obama’s election was “one of the most important advances for blacks.” By the summer of 2016, that number had dropped to 51 percent. In 2012, only 20 percent of African-Americans believed that the country was “headed in the wrong direction,” but by 2016 that number had risen to 48 percent.

Finally, 52 percent of African-Americans said that Mr. Obama’s policies had not gone far enough to improve their situation by 2016, an increase from the 32 percent who said this during his first year as president. While it’s true that voter turnout among African-Americans hit a record high in 2012, I think that happened because they believed Mr. Obama needed two terms to be able to carry out what he said his agenda was in the campaign.

A deeper look into the social and economic conditions of African-Americans at the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency is even more illuminating. By 2016, a staggering 73 percent of blacks believed that racial discrimination was “a very serious problem” and 61 percent described “race relations” as bad. This dour assessment was not just commentary on interpersonal relationships between African-Americans and whites; it reflected the continuing hardship experienced by African-Americans, which many of them attribute to racial discrimination.

In 2016, only 34 percent of African-Americans said they were “very satisfied with the quality of life in their community.” Four in 10 reported having trouble paying bills and surprisingly, nearly a quarter reported relying on a food bank or pantry in the past year — three times higher than for whites. This is the cold reality that lies beneath the well-discussed racial wealth gap, in which the median net worth of white families is some 13 times higher than it is for black families.

African-Americans did not blame Mr. Obama for these persistent levels of deprivation and inequality. But if the person who inspired an unprecedented electoral outpouring, captured by the most elemental expression of solidarity, “Yes, we can,” was unable to significantly change the material reality of ordinary African-American voters, then how could someone with not nearly as much charisma do so?

Mr. Obama of course had achievements, but there was a mismatch in the scale of what was promised and what was delivered. Were there unreasonable expectations? Perhaps, but they did not come out of thin air. At a speech after the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Obama said of his “Yes, we can” slogan, “It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.” More than once, he pointed to the civil rights movement and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the foundation of his own success, helping to raise expectations of substantive change. Those expectations were then compounded by growing need as black families were disproportionately hurt by the financial crisis in 2008.

But the goods delivered were never quite enough. Look at the eruption of Black Lives Matter in Mr. Obama’s second term. The federal government sprang into action in response to black political protests, but its actions were underwhelming. Weeks after riots boiled over in Ferguson, Mo., for example, Mr. Obama formed a task force on policing whose mission was not to reduce police brutality but to “promote effective crime reduction.” It released an interim report with weak recommendations, ranging from building trust to using technology to collect more data on policing.

The interim report’s release was quickly followed by recommendations from the Justice Department. But shortly after that, a video showed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, running away from a white police officer who shot him repeatedly in the back in North Charleston, S.C. Several days later, Freddie Gray, died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sending Baltimore into spasms of unrest.

In many ways, this captures the disconnect between Mr. Obama’s defenders, who believe he delivered a substantial bundle of reforms, and the wider Democratic base, especially African-Americans, for whom those changes didn’t improve their daily lives. His base was groomed to expect that the reforms would be more substantial, that abuse and marginalization might stop. The reform programs lagged far behind the impatience and urgency of people who longed for economic recovery and to be free from police scrutiny, surveillance and brutality.

It is undeniable that the Republican Party blocked or curtailed most of Mr. Obama’s legislative efforts, but his commitment to bipartisanship also undermined and diluted his professed agenda. His efforts to “reach across the aisle” resulted in compromises that came at the expense of the Democratic base. In 2014, he cut nearly $9 billion from food stamps, for example, because Republicans had argued for cutting up to $40 billion. For those who relied on food stamps, this was a devil’s bargain.

And it was the inability or unwillingness of the Obama administration to seize the political mantle for change it had won in the election in 2008 that created the conditions for the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement. Both of them focused on the systemic problems facing American society. The young people at the center of these movements demanded transformation, not just piecemeal reforms.

By the end of Mr. Obama’s first term, 95 percent of the financial gains of his economic recovery plan had gone to the richest 1 percent of the county. In the last decade, median income has stood virtually still. The inattention to Mr. Obama’s record, though, has meant that the conventional wisdom’s explanation for white voters' defection from the Obama coalition is racist backlash, not economic hardship.

True, Mr. Trump manipulated white racial resentment and peddled the false notion that Mr. Obama was helping black voters at the expense of whites. Surely, however, there must be some connection between the financial stagnation of tens of millions of ordinary white people and the drop in life expectancy driven by opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide. Economic anxiety is real even when it overlaps with racist pandering.

Of course, it’s not just white people who express their despair with extreme hopelessness. The suicide rate among African-Americans aged 10 to 19 is rising faster than that of any other group in the United States. Taken together, the moment seems grim, despite all of the chatter about the strength of the economy and the health of the stock market.

The reluctance to fully interrogate the Obama years also means that Mr. Obama continues to have outsize influence in the party — even as his cautious governing may have contributed to the disillusionment that played a role in producing Mr. Trump. It means that he is able to continue advocating for centrist politics as the guiding strategy for the party as it seeks to oust Mr. Trump. Last year, Mr. Obama weighed in on Democratic candidates’ proposals by saying, “The average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.” But aside from his own electoral success, why is he the best judge of the political direction of the party? During his tenure, Democrats lost some 970 seats in state legislatures, 11 governorships, 13 Senate seats and 69 House seats. More Democratic state legislative seats were lost during Mr. Obama’s presidency than under any other president in modern history.

Mr. Obama’s free pass is also extended to Joe Biden who has strong support among black voters. But we won’t really know the sustenance of Mr. Biden’s black support until the South Carolina primaries. Mrs. Clinton also had deep black support in 2008 — until she didn’t. If there looks like an “electable” alternative he might be in trouble.

Meanwhile, Mr. Biden continues to frame his own candidacy as an extension of the Obama administration. It’s unclear what that means. Will it be a continuation of Mr. Obama’s financial policies that benefited the richest Americans, including bank and Wall Street executives who were bailed out in the 2008 financial crisis? Or of his dreadful immigration policies that earned him the label “Deporter in Chief” from immigrant-rights activists? Will it be the same kind of reluctance to take on issues of racial inequality for fear of being pigeonholed as beholden to black interests? Or will it be the never-ending overtures to Republicans in the spirit of bipartisanship?

Democratic leaders are making a risky bet that the winning formula is to highlight Mr. Trump’s scandals without doing anything that may make these leaders appear too liberal. In contrast, the surge of Bernie Sanders, whom I support, speaks to the deep desires for substantial change. The Sanders flank of the party is betting that a campaign fueled by big promises of transformative change will attract the tens of millions of disaffected nonvoters who may hold the key to victory.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (@KeeangaYamahtta), an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton, is the author of, most recently, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.”
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