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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
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
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
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
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
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