Obama at Morehouse: Try Another Listen

You might find that attacks on his commencement speech -- a hit among graduates -- missed the mark.

President Barack Obama at Morehouse College (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama at Morehouse College (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

(The Root) — As I suspect is the case with many African-American voters who hoped against hope that Barack Obama’s presidency would bring about a sea change in the condition of our people, I’ve been disappointed with what he has been able to accomplish.

I give him full credit for the considerable achievements of his first term, such as Obamacare, that are often underestimated by his critics. But I’ve been frustrated and mystified by Obama’s overly conciliatory approach to his archenemies in the Republican right wing, whose highest — indeed, only — priority is to thwart his proposals, even when that puts the nation’s welfare at risk. Despite his relatively high approval ratings from voters, Obama has yet to discover an effective strategy for coping with his diehard conservative opponents.

That’s a problem that can only get worse because of the swirl of miniscandals, real and invented, that have now erupted in Washington, threatening to entangle Obama’s second term in a morass of hyperpartisan dysfunctionality. If it was difficult for Obama to get anything remotely transformational through the GOP-controlled Congress in his first term, it will be next to impossible now. If the president ever had a black agenda in mind, he’ll never be able to enact it. I wish he could get more done, but given what he’s up against, I don’t expect much more in the way of achievement.

But for all my problems with his performance in office, Obama has never let me down as an orator — especially on those occasions like the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, when he seeks to bind up our wounds and pull us together as a nation.

So I’ve been a bit surprised, to say the least, by the negative spin that some black commentators have put on the president’s Morehouse College address, suggesting that it opens a window into a dark corner of his political soul. It seems like a lot of energy is being spent on a rather innocuous topic.

The criticism started when blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic posted a widely circulated critique depicting the speech as hypocritical and condescending, an example of “targeted scorn” directed at Obama’s most loyal supporters. As Coates wrote:

Some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility, with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks, and the timidity they showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis which devastated black America (again.) They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug-war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.

That harsh critique — joined by a number of other Obama bashers — provoked an equally passionate rejoinder from the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who wrote off Coates and his fellow black Obama critics as unrealistic and misinformed. The naysayers, Capehart wrote,

… seem unaware of what the Obama administration has actually done. They discount the increases in education funding, particularly for historically black colleges and universities. They completely ignore the nearly 7 million African Americans who will get health care thanks to Obamacare. They seem to brush off the Fair Sentencing Act the president signed in 2010 that reduced the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses … To expect the president to introduce an explicit and definable “black agenda” in a Congress filled with people who believe him to be a socialist destroying the country while illegitimately occupying the Oval Office is seriously naive.

Once again we have an example of two sets of people looking at one set of facts and drawing diametrically opposed conclusions. It reminds me of the bifurcated, highly partisan views of the unfolding brouhahas emerging in Washington over the Internal Revenue Service, the investigations of leaks to reporters and the tragic mishandling of the murders of U.S. diplomats.

To the president’s detractors in the GOP, these events make a strong case for Obama’s impeachment. To his defenders, they amount, at worst, to a series of embarrassing problems that his foes are exaggerating for political gain. There seems to be no middle ground.