It seems not a month goes by without a politician or media figure from the Bill Clinton era hitting President Barack Obama for not being enough like the 42nd president. The latest: former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder says Clinton may have been the first black president after all.
Wilder writes in Politico that at first, he was not in agreement with author Toni Morrison’s declaration that Clinton was “the first black president,” and “Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” He goes on to say:
All of a sudden, during both Morrison’s and my lifetime — not just our children’s — America elected a black president, in a spirit of hope and optimism painted in votes from all hues across the human rainbow.
Yet here we sit, more than three years after Obama’s win, and too many people are pulling me aside in private to ask why his standing in the African-American community has softened since his Inauguration. They also question whether the reduced excitement among young and new voters — with that lack of enthusiasm from African-Americans — might hinder Obama’s 2012 campaign.
This has forced me to think back to Morrison’s comment.
Obama was elected in a flourish of promise that many in the African-American community believed would help not only to symbolize African-American progress since the Civil War and Civil Rights Acts but that his presidency would result in doors opening in the halls of power as had never been seen before by black America.
Has that happened? I am forced to say, “No” — especially when comparing Morrison’s metaphorical first black president to the actual first black president.
Wilder goes on to list a string of Clinton appointments, including the secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, Commerce and Engergy (plus he credits Clinton with having Vernon Jordan as a close friend and adviser … seriously. And he criticizes Obama for not matching Clinton’s achievements.
Never mind that Obama, too, has named a host of African-Americans to senior posts, including his original political director, Patrick Gaspard, who is now executive director of the Democratic National Committee; Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett, probably the person after Vice President Joe Biden with the greatest access to the Oval Office; soon-to-be out-going Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson, U.S.Trade Representative Ron Kirk, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Not to mention U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, the first black person to hold that post.
Meanwhile, if the measure of presidential blackness is the number of high-level African-American appointments, George W. Bush, having named two black secretaries of state and a black national security adviser, was the blackest president of them all.
Wilder’s other complaint: with two available appointments to the Supreme Court, Obama named no blacks, while Clinton nominated both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer… wait…
Wilder’s larger narrative is that he cannot see what “legacy” Obama will leave behind for black people, “beyond an electoral point in time.”
“Who will follow him? Who will be the second to Obama’s first, and what has he done to help prepare for that?” Wilder asks.
It’s an intriguing question coming from the first — and only — black governor of Virginia. Meanwhile, the present governor of that state had to walk back an attempt to commemorate the Civil War with no mention of slavery. If Wilder left a stamp on that state on behalf of African-Americans, Gov. Bob McDonnell may not have gotten the memo.
Wilder’s contention that Clinton “seeded” the judiciary with judges who could one day fill the Thurgood Marshall seat on the Supreme Court (sorry, Clarence Thomas,) also fails to stand up to the facts. Of Clinton’s confirmed judicial nominees, 16 percent are black, versus 7 percent black judges under George W. Bush and 21 percent for Obama. And since diversity is measured in more than just black and white, Obama’s record of 11 percent confirmed Hispanic judges edges out Clinton’s (7 percent) and his share of women judges does so by a margin of 47 percent to 29 percent.
Wilder joins a stream of backers of current Secretary of State (and loyal Obama administration member) Hillary Clinton during the 2007-2008 presidential primary, who spend a good deal of energy opining that if only Obama would be more like Bill, he’d be a rollicking success as president. They of course ignore the fact that Clinton’s high approval ratings had more to do with the roaring 90s economy (aided by the fact that Clinton was preceded by the Bush who raised taxes, rather than the Bush who slashed them on the way to tanking the economy) than his fictional “blackness.”
Clinton did have strong black support
At the root of the criticisms of black Clinton supporters circa 2008 are the relationships they cultivated with the former president and his wife, but that many of the same people have not developed with the current president.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Ohio) told theGrio this week that the lack of many close, personal relationships between Obama and particularly the more senior CBC members — many of whom came into office with Clinton — stems from the fact that when he was a U.S. Senator, Obama, though a CBC member, didn’t have much day-to-day contact with the other members.
“People did not have a chance to get a chance to bond with [then] Senator Obama because as you know, there’s hardly any contact between the Senate and the House.” All of the CBC members are in the House, since Obama left the Senate as its lone black member.
“Roy Blount, [one of] my Senators, I’ve seen twice since January – once I went to his office and the other time I saw him at an event. There was never the opportunity to spend that kind of time with each other.” Of the 43 current CBC members in the House, Cleaver said, “some of us are very close over here. Marcia Fudge is very close to me, but we see each other every day, we sit next to each other.”
The Clintons had “been around for a long time so people knew them,” Cleaver said. “It’s not like people were withdrawing from the president or anything else. It’s just that’s the way it happened.”
And because of those deeper relationship with the Clintons, many CBC members supported Hillary Clinton for president, having made that commitment even before Obama declared. Other Clinton friends, like former NBA star Magic Johnson and BET founder Bob Johnson, stuck with their candidate, in Johnson’s case, by attacking Obama personally. And Johnson has remained a vocal critic of the president.
But despite the occasional eruptions of Clinton nostalgia — and Obama criticism — the president enjoys 80 percent and higher approval among African-Americans, who despite the disproportionate negative impact of the economy on their communities, continue to be more optimistic than their peers on the economy, and strongly support the nation’s first black president. Black support could be what’s fueling Obama’s 69 percent approval rating among Twitter users. Wilder didn’t say who is “pulling him aside” to muse about Obama’s softened standing, but clearly, they have not read the polls.
It is of course, fair to note the places where Wilder believes Obama has fallen short. But Wilder’s failure to mention the significant differences, in reception and in push-back, for a white president who Toni Morrison found to be “black” and an actual black man in the White House, suggests that race and racism are no more real than the characters in Morrison’s books. And surely, Wilder doesn’t believe that.
By birth and life experience, Clinton cannot lay claim to the title of first black president — as Morrison knighted him. But Obama needs to work harder to make it less obvious that Clinton, in governing deed, actually deserves it more that the 44th president does.
But he fails to back up his contention that Clinton earned the title. Many blacks (including members of the CBC) took issue with Clinton’s signing of welfare reform. Clinton’s “the end of big government” included ending the Glass-Steagall protections that kept banks from gambling at the Wall Street casino, which paved the way for devastating losses that have disproportionately harmed black homeowners.
Clinton achieved a great deal during his presidency, and cultivated a warm relationship with black America (and with Africa.) But the idea that he exhibited more “blackness” than Obama because of civil service hires is a stretch.
Appointments are fine, but the real barriers to blacks entering the higher echelons of power remain electoral. As historian Eric Foner pointed out in a January 24 article for The Nation, the vast majority of blacks who have achieved power in the U.S. have done so through appointments. Wilder was one of only four black governors in U.S. history, and two of those were appointed (P. B. S. Pinchback, who served briefly in Louisiana during Reconstruction,) or succeeded someone else (Gov. David Patterson of New York.) There is still not a single African-American serving in the United States Senate, and in all, there have been just six.
Obama can expand the ranks of blacks in government through appointments. He can set a positive example of black manhood, fatherhood and leadership as president. He can put in place policies that benefit Americans overall, and which have inherent benefit to black families — something the administration would argue they have done. But in the end, his administration is temporary. If a legacy of black achievement is to be left behind for the long term, it will have to do be done by voters.