There was passive resistance as well. The Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, striking down orders that required busing across city and suburban lines, ensured that whites willing to leave the nation’s major cities for the then nearly all-white suburbs could avoid the prospect of sending their children to integrated schools. In all, the promise of Brown was never fulfilled — not because it was impossible to educate our nation’s children in desegregated schools, but because massive resistance, both institutional and individual, refused to give it a chance.
In this same way, resistance to the Obama presidency has begun to mirror that marshaled against Brown. As Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) — now fighting to hold on to his once-sure seat — observed when he visited all of the counties in his state after Obama’s election, “a conscious decision was made by some groups to destroy this presidency even before it started.” Rush Limbaugh candidly admitted in the first days after the inauguration that he wanted the Obama presidency to fail.
The legitimate anger and frustration of voters at the massive bank bailout, and the pressures of the economic crisis, understandably inspired populist activism. Progressives, exhausted from the campaign or still celebrating the Obama election, missed the opportunity to take advantage of populist outrage to build support for resistance to the rise of the unfettered corporate state.
But the channeling of legitimate anger by town hall protesters and many Tea Party activists into an all-out challenge to the legitimacy of Obama as president has revealed the extent to which animosity toward Obama himself is what lies at the heart of these movements. The theory that this rise in anti-government activism is triggered by a concern for fiscal responsibility and the bloated deficit would carry more weight if these same concerned citizens had revealed their resistance to unfettered spending during the Bush administration’s run-up of a trillion-dollar deficit pursuing two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.
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.