Obama’s First Year: Good, Not Great

Being a competent president is not enough in this moment of crisis.

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In his first year in office, Barack Obama has been a very good president, both at home and abroad. The trouble is that in these difficult times, America does not need a very good president. It needs a great one.

And, judging from his performance during his first year, when his popularity was at its highest and his trove of political capital was at its richest, Obama will never be a great president—unless we force him to be.

It will take generations to dig out from the mess Obama inherited and complete the changes Americans envisioned when they rallied behind his candidacy. The most Obama can do by himself is to nudge the nation a bit further along the path to recovery.

His election was revolutionary. His administration, left to its own devices, will be evolutionary, settling for what it can get even when that’s not nearly good enough. Its calculation seems to be that America is simply not ready for anything more fundamental. It seldom is.

African Americans should have expected that. We ought to remember that our historic role has been to hold up a mirror between what America promises and what it delivers, and try to narrow the gap. We ought to acknowledge that real change takes time, even when a black man is in the White House. Lots of time. More than five decades after segregation was struck down, there have been enormous strides toward freedom, but we are nowhere close to a post-racial society. Yet we keep fighting on—and we must.