The Massive Resistance Movement Against Obama

The right has adopted tactics that echo efforts to block school desegregation in the 1950s. This time they may permanently damage our political system.

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To be sure, Obama is not a perfect president. But he followed one of the most imperfect presidents in the nation's history. He has faced a crippling financial crisis and two unwinnable wars -- conditions almost wholly created by the policies of the Republican Party under President George W. Bush. Obama entered the job with a cool head, prodigious intelligence, a commitment to compromise and a fount of international good will. He was our best chance to turn around many of the policies that have brought this country to the brink of disaster. His skills as a conciliator, politician and organizer could have opened a new chapter in our too-often deadlocked political discourse.

The election of the first African-American president also had the potential to push this country forward in its long-standing racial stalemate. As the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama challenged racial orthodoxy. His nontraditional roots offered space for rich and complex racial dialogue. He has managed in only 18 months to implement policies and ensure the passage of key legislation and initiatives on health care, employment, civil rights, economic recovery and education. He ended combat operations in Iraq (admittedly while stepping up operations in the Afghanistan quagmire). And despite all the political naysayers, Obama is likely to accomplish more reforms before 2012. Technically speaking, he has been a successful president.

Despite the best efforts of his opponents, then, the Obama presidency will not be a failure. But its full promise has been lost. Although painful to say, this is almost certainly true. The opportunity to advance our political discourse; expand imagination in our public policy; and infuse our economic, educational and political initiatives with greater humanity seems unlikely to arise. To continue to blame Obama alone for this failure is almost like blaming Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers for the failure of school integration. They made mistakes. So has Obama.

It is almost certainly true that health-care reform should not have been advanced as the new president's first initiative. But the mistakes of the push for reform are simply insufficient to explain the ugliness, the anger or the destructiveness of the continuing opposition to Obama, and indeed to the very idea of responsible governance. Like the obstructionists in Prince William County, Republicans have shown themselves willing to dismantle the very apparatus of government to ensure Obama's failure.

Indeed, some Republican leaders seem hellbent on making this country ungovernable. The recalcitrance of members of Congress -- as well as their increasingly disrespectful treatment of the president (the "you lie" assault before a joint session of Congress was a watershed moment) and the political process -- has contributed to an atmosphere of rebellion that may have dangerous consequences. Beck, Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and others have used the same kind of language used to stoke fear and uncompromising resistance in white residents of Virginia after Brown.

The idea that Obama is Muslim has been promoted in order to ally him with extremist Muslim terrorists, and thus to paint him as an enemy of our country, much as Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were branded as communists in the 1950s. Bizarre staged acts of bigotry may also be making a comeback. Like Lester Maddox, who catapulted himself onto the national stage by wielding a pickax to keep blacks from entering his restaurant after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Florida sect leader Terry Jones threatened to burn Qurans -- imperiling U.S. servicemen and disrespecting the millions of Americans who are Muslims (many of whom are African American), and all people of faith. The result is nonstop political theatrics designed to inflame the public and foment an atmosphere of opposition to the Obama presidency.

The uncontrolled emotional response to the Obama presidency will compel too many Americans to work against their own interests, just as it did in the years following Brown. Massive resistance to school integration began the virtual abandonment and impoverishment of the public education system in this country. So too, massive resistance to the Obama presidency, if not turned back, will impoverish and imperil the integrity and vitality of our political system.

So how should massive resistance be met in 2010? With massive organizing and push-back. The greatest successes of the civil rights movement came during the resistance to school integration. They came as a result of marches and boycotts. Rather than spend energy critiquing the Tea Party, progressives will have to gear up and speak up to maximize the possibilities of the Obama presidency. The first test will be this November's midterm elections. Obama now seems up for the fight. But it's the job of progressive activists and voters to resist massive resistance. 

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches law at the University of Maryland, is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.