(The Root) — The same day that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines for their first joint interview, on 60 Minutes, NAACP President Ben Jealous delighted conservatives with his headline-making interview on another Sunday news program. Appearing on Meet the Press, Jealous said, "Right now when you look at joblessness in this country — the country is pretty much back to where it was when this president started. White people are doing a bit better. Black folks are doing a full point worse."
Also on Meet the Press, onetime vice presidential candidate, and current member of the House, Paul Ryan offered this theory regarding the current economic battles facing our country: "Look, if we had a [Hillary] Clinton presidency, if we had Erskine Bowles as chief of staff of the White House or president of the United States, I think we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now," Ryan said. "[But] that's not the kind of presidency we're dealing with right now."
Both pronouncements raise questions that have been pondered by some political watchers since the conclusion of the 2008 presidential election: Would African Americans have fared better under a Hillary Clinton presidency than under Obama (and will they if she runs and wins in 2016)?
Does President Obama Get a Pass?
Jealous' remarks illustrate a reality that has disappointed some African Americans, who were hopeful that a black presidency would lead to an improvement in conditions for black America. However, addressing that disappointment has been tricky, particularly for black lawmakers.
In a previous interview with The Root, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), said, "Well, I'm supposed to say he doesn't get a pass, but I'm not going to say that. Look, as the chair of the Black Caucus, I've got to tell you, we are always hesitant to criticize the president. With 14 percent [black] unemployment [pdf], if we had a white president, we'd be marching around the White House."
Cleaver added, "The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn't to someone white." Cleaver's point, that African Americans would be tougher on a white president regarding the dismal unemployment numbers that have plagued the black community, lends credence to the notion that black Americans might actually have fared better under Clinton — if you accept the premise that a politician will address the needs of a constituency that holds him or her accountable.
In an interview with The Root, African-American radio host Mark Thompson, the host of Sirius Radio's Make It Plain, described the difference between a Hillary Clinton presidency and Barack Obama's this way: "If she had won, I think that the African-American community would have held her to a higher level of accountability and would have even demanded more and probably would have been more willing to agitate … for its needs. "
He continued: "The current scenario is politically, the first African-American president doesn't want to appear to show favoritism towards African Americans, and African Americans in turn don't want to harm and confront the first African-American president — so we've pretty much neutralized each other."
African-American Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) once made a similar argument, saying that many black members of Congress were worried that their constituents would be displeased if they were perceived as being too tough on the first black president. Adding to the complexity Thompson speaks of, Obama has faced endless, unfounded criticism for allegedly being biased toward African Americans since taking office. One poll found that 31 percent of Republicans believe the president is "a racist who hates white people." Former Fox News host Glenn Beck famously called the president a racist "who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."
Did Clinton Lose Her Pass?
During their 60 Minutes appearance, Obama and Clinton intimated that part of what made their presidential primary fight so bitter is that they actually had few policy differences. When it comes to policies directly affecting African Americans, for instance, both support affirmative action.
The secretary of state and her husband enjoyed immense support and trust among the black community — so much so that former President Clinton was once dubbed "the first black president." But their image within the black community was somewhat tarnished by controversial comments the former president made about his wife's then foe. Among them, Bill Clinton seemed to dismiss the viability of Obama's campaign for the presidency by saying of his South Carolina primary win, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
Former President Clinton also faced criticism that by shepherding policies like welfare reform, he ultimately did more harm than good for low-income people of color, who were hit disproportionately by such measures.
But the reason the question lingers as to whether black Americans would have done better under Hillary Clinton can perhaps best be summarized by a baseball analogy. In a previous interview with The Root, when asked to give President Obama a grade for handling the economy, civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the president a solid B. But he went on to draw parallels between the president and Jackie Robinson.
"When Jackie got drafted, everyone who was black was a Jackie fan and a Dodgers fan," Jackson said. But he continued that after a few years, as more players of color joined the league, "we could be fans based on productivity." His point? That's where black Americans can be now with the president: judging him on results.
Unprompted, Mark Thompson mentioned the Jackie Robinson analogy, too, but for a slightly different reason. "The phenomenon in our relationship [between the black community and the president] is we are following the version of the Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson 'Don't fight back' mantra." Thompson was referring to the white baseball executive who famously coached Jackie Robinson to be a pioneer for his people by integrating the major leagues, but warned him that doing so would require that Robinson turn the other cheek — at least in the beginning. "But that ban," Thompson noted, "was lifted after two years, and no one messed with Jackie after that."
"Enough time has elapsed that the rule has been lifted for both of us [African Americans and Obama] — but we are both still acting on that rule," he continued. "The African-American community has been silenced out of fear of hurting the first African-American president. If it had been Hillary, we would not have been afraid [to criticize]."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.