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.
We need to bring a similar patience to our expectations for Obama, no matter how let down we may feel by his inability to change America overnight. This is a time for determination, not disappointment. We must keep our eyes on the prize and hold on.
Part of the frustration some of us feel is rooted in Obama’s conciliatory approach to governing. He is the precise opposite of a traditional black leader—a jelly-maker, not a tree-shaker, in Jesse Jackson’s memorable phrase. His default stance is compromise, not confrontation. And he has sometimes been rolled, as when he gave in to Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson’s bullying on health care reform. Such behavior makes Obama look both weak and cynical. We sometimes want him to be angry and unbending, not calm, cool and conniving. We want him to be a hero and, by his nature, he’s anything but heroic.
But the far greater source of his difficulty lies in the backwardness entrenched in our political system and the small-mindedness it encourages. The self-interested partisanship of politicians such as Nelson and Joe Lieberman is but one, relatively insignificant manifestation of this deep-rooted pathology. A far more dangerous, fundamental measure of the meanness, stubbornness, ignorance and outright stupidity that characterize American politics can be found on the right, in the rise of Sarah Palin and the sudden, explosive growth of the so-called tea party movement.
African Americans have seen this pathology before, when it took the form of a white backlash against the civil rights movement. The white mobs that formed to keep black kids from going to desegregated schools during the 1950s and ‘60s are the spiritual forebears of much of the current anti-Obama coalition, just as Palin, in her shrill anti-intellectualism, is an updated George C. Wallace in high heels. She may not be a bigot, but the brand of know-nothing populism that she is tapping into has always contained a nasty dose of racism and class resentment. It is no coincidence that it has burst back onto the scene with spectacular virulence with the election of a black president, pushing the Republican Party even further to the ridiculous right and reinforcing its tendency to just say no to anything Obama proposes.
Racial animosity alone, of course, does not account for the steep decline in Obama’s popularity. There are deep-seated, valid and troubling questions about his policies, especially his administration’s failure to put hard-pressed breadwinners back to work. In Massachusetts, a blue state if ever there was one, qualms about Obama’s health reform plan helped Republican Scott Brown defeat Democrat Martha Coakley in the battle to take Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate. The Democrats have lost their veto-proof majority in the Senate, and the health care bill could be in danger.
But opposition to Obama’s policies cannot account for the emotional virulence of his opposition. The kind of undiluted loathing that is directed at him, historically, has its roots in racial resentment and like it or not, such hatred is a significant part of the equation. The tea party is an angry, unthinking mob whose passions can never be quelled by appeals to reason, logical arguments or plain facts—the stuff at which Obama excels. A mob can only be defeated by a more powerful movement—and that’s where we come in.
Our history shows that America only progresses when disciplined, principled mass organizations present the government with an irresistible demand. It was that way during the heyday of the civil rights movement. It needs to be that way again.
Obama, because he is who he is and because he is now the president, cannot lead a progressive mass movement. He can only respond to one. We need to build a movement as inspiring and inclusive as the one led by Martin Luther King Jr., that can both defend him and hold his feet to the fire. If we want Obama to be a great president, we have to make him one. He won’t get there without us.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.