President Obama’s memorable, yet mixed legacy on race

As the first person of color to capture the White House in the 240-year history of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America, is extraordinarily unique.

For this reason alone, President Obama will never be relegated to the dustbin of history—like so many presidents whom we have trouble even placing in historical order. He will also never be forgotten because, by almost all accounts, he has done a good job on just about every metric that we use to evaluate presidential leadership.

Obama took office at the height of the Great Recession, when the American economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. As he prepares to leave office, the nation’s unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent. Moreover, the 15 million jobs that were created during his two terms in is the best jobs record of any president in US history.

By successfully passing the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), President Obama got us as close to the goal of universal health insurance—a goal pursued by every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt—than we have ever been. On the national security front, it was President Obama who gave the orders that brought Osama Bin Laden to justice for the horrific 9-11 attacks.

Anyone of these three accomplishments in isolation would have secured President Obama’s legacy as a highly effective president. Together this impressive hat trick will almost certainly lead scholars to place President Obama in the pantheon of the truly great presidents.

Indeed, a survey of political scientists conducted by the American Political Science Association in 2015 ranked President Obama in the top 15 of all US presidents even before he has completed his term in office.

While there is no doubt that President Obama deserves to be lionized as such in our public sphere, there is one area where he has underachieved throughout his eight years. Ironically, our first black president, whose election was touted by some commentators as evidence that we had entered a “post-racial” age, has not moved the ball forward in advancing substantive racial equality in the United States.

Indeed, the Obama years have been an era of retrenchment in the civil rights policies that provide African Americans with the pathways to fair and equitable treatment in the United States.

In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that two crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. This ruling paved the way for the suppression of the same African American voters that stood in line for hours to elect President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Although several independent analyses have shown that these voters were the heart of the Obama coalition—meaning he would not have won without them—President Obama has not been an aggressive defender of African American voting rights. While he did publish a moving testimony about the importance of the Voting Rights Act to his own elections in the New York Times in August 2015, no new policy solutions have been forthcoming from his Department of Justice.

While some might say that expecting President Obama to push policy solutions for protecting African American voting rights while his party are in the a minority in the Congress is too much to ask. This view fundamentally misunderstands the role of the presidency in our political system. The chief power of presidents in our domestic politics hinges on their ability to use their bully pulpit to persuade the American people that a policy is correct and then to shame the US Congress into action.

It is not that we should always expect presidents to win these fights. But there can be no chance of victory if the president refuses to lay down a marker and be a true activist on an issue; and that has been the dilemma we find ourselves in with President Obama making only three high profile statements about black voting rights since 2013.

A truly activist president on this issue would have been both more engaged rhetorically and sent his own bill to Congress even though he knew it would be dead on arrival. In the 1920s, both President Warren Harding and President Calvin Coolidge publicly stumped for federal anti-lynching legislation even though they knew that it would be filibustered to death in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

President Eisenhower and President Kennedy effectively used the bully pulpit to pass weak laws protecting black voting rights during their terms in office with the hopes of leaving something in place for a future president to build upon. This is precisely what President Johnson did when he passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As President Obama leaves office, it is clear that he has laid down no marker on this issue for a future progressive president to follow.

The economy is another area where the black community could have benefited from a more activist President Obama. Again, President Obama’s overall jobs record is extraordinary. And, there is no doubt that African Americans have benefitted from his leadership on this issue.

At the height of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 15 percent. As President Obama prepares to leave office, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for African Americans is hovering around 9 percent. President Obama has taken great pride in the fact that the black unemployment rate is back to where it was before the recession.

The problem with this view is that a 9 percent unemployment rate is twice the national average for white Americans. In other words, President Obama’s leadership on jobs has done absolutely nothing to reduce the racial gap in employment opportunities that has persisted in the US economy for a generation.

What is even more troubling is the fact that the economic stimulus measures that President Obama put in place had a racially disparate impact. Whereas white Americans immediately saw relief through the stimulus measures, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually increased in the two years immediately following the passage of the American Investment and Recovery Act.

Like with voting rights, President Obama had the opportunity to do more to close the racial gap in the US economy during his tenure. There was a robust Democratic majority in control when he sent his federal stimulus package to Congress. In this context, it would have been easy for President Obama to request some targeted relief—in the form of training programs, strong affirmative action mandates, etc.—for the African American community.

President Obama chose not to do this at the time.

Moreover, when the leaders of the nation’s civil rights organizations reported to him that they believed that such measures were warranted, he rebuffed their requests.

Despite these weaknesses in his record, President Obama enjoys the highest average approval ratings among African Americans in the history of public opinion polls. Moreover, my own research, with Hanes Walton of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, shows that President Obama is rated 7th out of the 19 modern presidents by the black press for his handling of civil rights issues and race relations.

These high ratings likely stem from the fact that Obama has successfully used his rhetoric to articulate the frustrations of Black America in the age of retrenchment that he has presided over even while he has developed no policies to reverse these trends.

While it is true, as Daniel Gillion of the University of Pennsylvania has pointed out, that President Obama has talked about racial inequality less than any other president that has held office since Franklin Roosevelt, his few speeches on the issue have come at particularly poignant times.

They have also generally demonstrated to the African American community that he shares their experiences in this country. Who can forget President Obama’s incredibly moving statement that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon” in the wake of the teen’s murder by George Zimmerman in 2012.

My own research shows that President Obama talks about African Americans and their achievements as a distinct community in this nation more than any other president in US history.

It is clear that this kind of empathetic rhetoric from our first black president has created a bond between him and the African American community that cannot be ruptured by policy inaction or even failures. Political scientists have typically dismissed this kind of “symbolic representation” that President Obama has excelled at over the past eight years as being of a lesser value than policy advocacy and outcomes.

While I tend to share this view, there is no doubt that the African American community will always have a special affinity for the 44th President of the United States.

For many African-Americans, Barack Obama has been – to borrow Ossie Davis’ famous words on Malcolm X – a “shining black prince” during his historic tenure in the White House.

Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., is associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. In 2016, he served as co-chair of the American Political Science Association’s Presidential Task Force on Racial and Class Inequalities in the America’s. Follow him on Twitter @AlvinBTilleryJr.

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