Are you disappointed with Obama simply because you’re a white racist and he’s black? Unlikely. Because if we were all white racists, we wouldn’t have supported Barack Obama in the first place. And we did. Far more than we probably should have.
But there’s an article going around, in the recent edition of the Nation, suggesting that “white” progressives (always informative for someone to judge you racist simply based on the color of your skin) are upset with the president because of a subtle form of racism that expects blacks to achieve more than similarly placed whites. Her comparison: Bill Clinton vs Barack Obama. Clinton was heartily re-elected, Obama is in trouble. Clinton was white. Obama is black.
To quote the President, “c’mon.”
Joan Walsh of Salon does a wonderful job deconstructing the argument. I’ll defer to her. Here are a few of the best grafs:
The difference between Clinton’s booming economy and today’s broken one creates political problems for Obama in another way: He was largely elected due to Americans’ fears that we were headed into an abyss, and their faith that he would bring the economic change he promised. Like a pilot taking over with a plane in a nose dive, Obama kept the economy from crashing, but he hasn’t lifted it into smooth skies. Maybe it makes me an unrealistic and entitled white progressive — that’s pretty much what black author Ishmael Reed called Obama’s white critics — but I think it’s clear that even with a recalcitrant Congress, the president could have done more than he did to dismantle the rigged system that let Wall Street destroy the economy, as well as more to help its casualties.
You don’t have to believe every conversation reported in Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men” — and I don’t — to see that at almost every juncture, the president and his economic team sided with Wall Street and the banks that caused the crash, rather than with the crash’s victims. Many politicians share the blame: Democrats and Republicans let the financial sector rig the rules to enrich itself and impoverish the rest of us for the last 30 years. They’ve gotten increasingly rich by lending us the cash we didn’t get in raises since wages stagnated in the 1970s, after the Democrats began running away from economic populism (but that’s another, longer story you can read about in my book next year). But given the political opening to challenge that system in 2009, Obama essentially left it intact.
As I wrote last week, Obama appointed the Clinton economic-team veterans most friendly to Wall Street — most notably, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers — while excluding and/or marginalizing the Clinton vets most critical, like Robert Reich, Laura Tyson and Gary Gensler. And whether it was the Volcker rule getting commercial banks out of speculative, proprietary trading, or efforts to sell shady derivatives on “exchanges” for the sake of transparency, or a contingency plan to force the toxic behemoth Citibank into bankruptcy, Obama let important reforms either die on the vine or be diluted into ineffectiveness. He had a rare window to change the system radically, and it’s now closed.
So yeah, I did expect more of Obama. And probably expected more from him than I expected from Bill Clinton. Under George H.W. Bush I didn’t feel like we were losing our country. Under his son, I did. Under George H.W. Bush, we had a recession. Under his son began the worst economic downturn since the great depression. Circumstances demanded that Obama rise to the occasion far more than Clinton, and I’m not entirely sure he has.
A president is judged by how well he handles the hand he’s dealt. And if a white president had: proposed a too small stimulus, and then whittled it down even further to appease an angry (and then- irrelevant) GOP; refused to get his hands dirty with the nitty gritty of health care reform for nearly a year, until it was too late (and brokered noxious secret deals with Big Pharma); promised to be a fierce advocate on gay rights and then dawdled far too long; embraced budget cutting mania while the economy was still on life support; and caved time after time to insane Republican demands in order to avoid a fight he might just have been able to win, then yeah, I’d have been ticked at him too.
And I was ticked at Clinton. I still have that copy of the NYT, buried somewhere, containing a photo of me and Gregg Haifley, from our days at the Children’s Defense Fund, picketing the Clinton White House over welfare reform. And then there was the time during the 1993 (gay) March on Washington when we all put plastic doctors’ gloves atop the points of the White House fence in order to protest the Secret Service’s then-absurd policy on (not) welcoming people with AIDS. So yeah, we annoyed Bill Clinton too (and I’m sure his wife wasn’t very pleased with me either about 3 years ago, and last time I checked, she’s white too).
And I remember, in the middle of the impeachment, telling a friend that I didn’t want Clinton impeached, but I did want him to just go away. Plus ça change…
One more thing, since the author of the Nation piece claims that gays were happier with Clinton than we are with Obama, and that this too is allegedly because of our subtle racism. The Obama folks like to claim that Barack Obama has done so much more than Bill Clinton ever did for the gays. But that’s not entirely true. Bill Clinton had the first openly gay person with AIDS, Bob Hattoy, speak during primetime at his convention in 1992. It was a huge deal for our community, and it forced the Republicans to have a PWA speak during their convention as well. Bill Clinton appointed “that damned lesbian” Robert Achtenberg to be an assistant secretary at HUD before it was cool to have an openly gay assistant secretary. Bill Clinton appointed the first openly gay ambassador, the first White House gay liaison (a job that’s been downsized in the Obama White House). Bill Clinton gladly accepted gay money when Dukakis had openly shunned it (“[A] fundraiser for the Dukakis campaign told Mixner that Governor Dukakis would not accept the million dollars Mixner and his friends planned to raise for him”). Yes, Bill Clinton signed DADT and DOMA – and don’t think that the gays didn’t hold him account, one of his then- best friends, David Mixner, repeatedly went on TV to castigate the new President for his botched handling of gays in the military, and even got himself arrested outside the White House fence (torpedoing a quite lucrative consulting practice in the process).
So, yes, Bill Clinton signed DADT and DOMA, but he also did a hell of a lot of “firsts” for my community in an era in which it wasn’t nearly as easy to be pro-gay as it is today.
President Obama gets big kudos for the repeal of DADT (though he handled it poorly, and it almost didn’t happen as a result). But other than that, I’m hard pressed to come up with as many examples of President Obama using his limited supply of political chits for the gay community. (Was appointing an openly gay head of OPM really that hard a slog? No, it wasn’t. That doesn’t negate it being a good thing. But it does negate it being a great thing. And it’s not nearly as big a deal, in context, as appointing Achtenberg and Hormel during the 1990s.)
And that, I think, is a large part of the (more than just gay) dismay with Barack Obama. He doesn’t stick his neck out nearly enough. Clinton did, while Obama plays it safe. Clinton eventually became a fighter. Perhaps O
bama can too. And if he does, I’m happy to remember him fondly as well.