(The Root) — Rick Santorum once said that John F. Kennedy's 1960 address on religious freedom made him want to "throw up." But with the notable exception of the former senator and onetime GOP presidential contender, it would be tough finding a Catholic American who'd look back on the tenure of our first Catholic president and assess that he didn't do enough for Catholics.
But there's no shortage of folks who say that President Barack Obama — our first black president — hasn't done enough for African Americans. So to help them out, I'll sum up exactly what Obama has done for black people:
Nothing. And that's exactly the way it should be.
But not according to Columbia University's Fredrick Harris, who lamented at great length in Friday's Washington Post that "far from giving black America greater influence in U.S. politics, Obama's ascent to the White House has signaled the decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial inequality head-on."
He rips Obama for the "disparities in the criminal justice system; the disproportionate impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color; black unemployment; and the persistence of HIV/AIDS," writing that "even as we watch him go out of his way to lift up other marginalized groups (such as gay Americans) and call for policies that help everyone, we've accepted his silence on issues of particular interest to us."
But missing the irony of his own critique, Harris never seems to consider that "policies that help everyone" are precisely the point for a president. And he appears to be missing the very real triumph of a democracy in which Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and repealed "Don't ask, don't tell" a half-century after Kennedy telephoned to support Martin Luther King Jr. after his release from Birmingham City Jail.
To suggest, though, that over the last four years Obama should have pushed for policies specifically targeted toward black America is to misunderstand the Obama presidency.
On Sunday the Post's Jonathan Capehart offered an exhaustive rebuttal to Harris, pointing out that Obama ramped up his Office of National AIDS Policy, signed the Fair Sentencing Act and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — needed, arguably, by black mortgage holders more than anyone.
But Capehart left out the big picture about both Obama and the black electorate: that African Americans, including Obama, are concerned with more than just black issues. Like other Americans, black voters wanted Osama bin Laden found and killed. Black voters supported the GM bailout, celebrated the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and were relieved to see their 401(k)s come back to life in the last few years.
Black unemployment remains staggeringly high. But for a decade, black unemployment has exceeded the national average by anywhere from 3.7 to 6.9 percent. So if Obama has failed on employment, then call it a failure on employment — not a failure on black employment.
It's not about not criticizing Obama — when he's wrong, he's wrong. But he should be held accountable as a leader, not as a black leader. And voters, black or otherwise, have the chance a few months from now to hold him accountable by going with the alternative.
For those who don't like the war on terror, it's fair game to contest Obama's foreign policy. If you liked the "public option," you'd have grounds to reject Obama's Affordable Care Act. And if you favor a flat tax and want to slash social spending, you've got a definite beef with Obama's big-government conservatism.
And there's nothing wrong with observing that before, during and after the Obama administration, African Americans still fall behind in wealth, education and health outcomes. What's questionable is the premise that Obama was elected to disaggregate and prioritize those concerns over those of the American people as a whole.
What's Obama done for black people? Nothing — except affirm the Americanness of black Americans, from slavery, to fighting and dying for this country, to leading the country and the free world during difficult times.
Not to mention that African Americans aren't the only people proud of their first black president. There's a definite pride that Americans have in reaching that milestone. But in the end, Obama has more in common with JFK than MLK. He's not a preacher; he's a politician. And he has set the precedent for all future presidents.
Because when we elect our first Latino president, our first Asian-American president, our first woman president or our first Mormon president, the bar will have been set — high — by the first black president: The job of president of the United States is to be president.
President of all the people of the United States.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.