Speechmaking has never been Barack Obama’s problem. From the first time the nation heard him as a young state senator from Chicago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, through the Hope and Change stump speeches on the campaign trail in 2008 and his many Presidential addresses in the wake of tragedies like the shootings in Newtown and the bombing in Boston, Obama’s rhetoric has always been his strong suit. His political oratory has captured the imaginations of his followers and of the vast swaths of the uncommitted American middle in ways that can’t help but place him in the pantheon of great presidential communicators in the age of modern media alongside men like Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. We did not elect Barack Obama to the presidency because of past accomplishments so much as future promises. The president and his speechwriters managed to bottle an optimism and a grandeur that had been missing from American life for decades. In his words, we saw a panoply of possibilities that would return us to an idealized past that many of us never lived in and may have never really existed. He reminded us that there was a time where we not only waged wars on foreign nations and terrorist organizations, but on poverty and disease as well. And, for a moment, even the hardest hearted of us had cause to believe that prosperity and equality weren’t merely political buzzwords, but realities waiting to be realized.
Outside of a small, yet vocal, collection of diehard supporters, most Americans have come to see Hope and Change as little more than campaign slogans—another in a seemingly endless string of unfulfilled promises our elected officials provide for us in exchange for our vote. That is not to say President Obama does not have a host of accomplishments to his name, because he does, but to point out that his has not been a transformative administration. In his State of the Union address last night, Obama rattled off a laundry list of indices that were supposed to show the efficacy of his policies: fastest growing economy since Clinton, lowest unemployment rate since before the financial crisis, more Americans with health insurance than before, most freedom from foreign oil in nearly 30 years, and so on and so forth. Some of these changes, like the spike in health insurance, are the direct result of President Obama’s actions. Others, like the lack of dependence on foreign oil have very little to do White House policies and are driven by a host of external factors like the rise in domestic oil and natural gas production, which any Democratic president interested in reducing personal culpability for global warming should run away from as fast as possible.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that any president would refrain from taking credit for positive short-term developments during their time in office and I mention the Obama administration’s influence (or lack thereof) over them not to single the President out, but rather to lump him in with his predecessors. Anyone holding out any hope that President Obama would finally show that progressive streak that many of us have—perhaps unfairly—projected upon him since his first presidential campaign would have to come away from this State of the Union disappointed. Yes, he emphasized a number of very positive programs and policy changes that he hopes to implement, like providing free community college to all Americans, making childcare more affordable and closing tax loopholes that protect inherited wealth, but these are not major changes. And, considering the fact that with a Republican majority in congress none of those proposals have a snowball’s chance in hell of coming to fruition, it’s not unreasonable to have wanted President Obama to swing for the fences.
Nowhere was Obama’s reluctance to break from the status quo more evident in his remarks on race, which were relegated to a reference to his belief in a united America from his convention speech 10 years prior, an acknowledgement of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma and a vague, race-blind mention of fathers fearing their sons will be harassed on their way home, which was immediately neutralized by a reference to a parallel fear of policemen’s wives waiting nervously for their husbands to come home from work. A fair number of pundits have opined that Obama has gotten a case of senioritis or, as one outlet put it, that Obama is officially “out of fucks” to give, but if that is indeed the case, it would suggest that the President does not have strong feelings on the role of race in America, something I find incredibly hard to believe. I had held out a small sliver of hope that the portion of President Obama’s State of the Union address concerning race would address the myriad inequities that face the black community in America and would give no quarter to a police state that propagates hatred, discrimination and the wanton murder of men and women for the unforgivable crime of their blackness. That sliver was not justified.
In his address to the nation, President Obama derided his critics who said that his presidency has not delivered on its message of racial and political unity, calling them out as cynics who are incapable of seeing the greatness of America. Obama told us that he still believes what he said in Boston a decade ago, that there isn’t “a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America.” It’s a great line and makes for a nice soundbite on the morning talk shows, but it is categorically false. If we have learned anything from 2014—from the unrest in Ferguson and the deaths of Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and countless others at the hands of law enforcement—it is that blacks and whites do not live in the same America.
We who call out our leaders for glossing over racial and economic inequalities and peddling nonexistent bipartisanship are not cynics; we are realists, with our feet firmly on pavement and our hands and placards up to protest an unjust and stratified world. No, the cynics are those in positions of power who have the means to speak up for miscarriages of justice routinely carried out on black men and women and who do not out of fear of censure from police unions and politicians. The cynic is the leader whose leadership was only made possible by the blood shed by civil rights activists of the past who refuses to support the civil rights activists of the present by saying those three simple words—by saying that black lives matter. As Dr. King once said, “we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.” We may yet hope that President Obama decides to take up the mantle of the modern civil rights movement, but, at the very least, we should be able to expect that he will acknowledge that it still exists.