But perhaps the most delicate challenge he faced – and still faces – centers on his own identity as America’s first black president. His election represented a major milestone, but certainly not an endpoint, in one of the core narratives of the American story: the battle for racial equality.
Now, embedded in the color of President Obama’s skin lie the aspirations of African- Americans, many (or most) of whom see his ascendancy to the Oval Office as a signal opportunity for Washington to tackle the persistent racial disparities in unemployment, poverty, access to healthcare, and educational performance.
In a way, Obama was bound to disappoint. Having run for president as a “postracial” candidate, touching on race only when necessary to appeal to the widest audience possible, Obama predictably has run his presidency the same way.
But that has not stopped some black leaders from voicing chagrin. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has said it’s time for civil rights leaders to start pressuring Obama.
When Obama delivered a speech on jobs last month, Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said in a statement: “While we agree with the president that support for small businesses, infrastructure investment, and green jobs is essential, we also believe that much more needs to be done, particularly for those Americans who are hurting most.”
Black unemployment, around 16 percent, is nearly double that of whites.
In mid-December, 10 members of the CBC fired a shot across the bow by boycotting a key House committee vote and threatening to drop support for new banking regulations. The walkout worked: Money for unemployed homeowners and neighborhood revitalization was added to the legislation.
Other important black voices have defended Obama. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a leading civil rights figure of the 1960s, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month: “He has taken a very simple position, which is a good position, I think: By helping all Americans, you help minorities.”
Another CBC member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Texas, has also come to Obama’s defense. In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, she called him a “miracle worker” in pulling the economy back from the brink.
Obama spoke forcefully on his own behalf in a Christmas week interview with American Urban Radio Networks, whose audience is heavily black. The president said that while he is prohibited by law from targeting legislation at any particular racial group, he feels he has done a lot that has benefited African-Americans, starting with the Recovery Act, which saved the jobs of teachers and firefighters, many of whom are black.
“Is there grumbling? Of course there’s grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he told American Urban Radio’s April Ryan. “Everybody is concerned about unemployment, everybody’s concerned about businesses not hiring, everybody’s concerned about their home values declining. And in each of these areas, African-Americans have been disproportionately affected.”
Perhaps most striking in his interview with Ms. Ryan, who is black, was his repeated use of “we” and “us.” Obama usually does not place himself so overtly in that context, but he appeared to be telling her listeners, “I’m one of you, I’m with you.”
David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, recently polled black opinion in four states that he calls “pretty representative” of the country – Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, and South Carolina. Obama scored a 95 percent favorability rating with around 80 percent job approval.
“African-Americans are still by far Obama’s strongest supporters,” says Mr. Bositis.
Some black scholars warn that beneath the high job approvals, there are warning signs for Obama. Blacks tell pollsters they still support Obama, but there may be less enthusiasm than a year ago.
One of the big stories of 2008 was the unprecedented mobilization of minority voters. It’s safe to say that keeping minority voters excited and engaged will be part of Obama’s strategy for 2012, assuming he runs for reelection. But he has to give them something to get excited about.
“I was just listening to black talk radio, and someone called him a closet Republican,” says Mr. Walters. “There’s been such a celebratory
atmosphere about the fact that he’s our first black president, no one would have dared say that [at first] – but now the mood is changing out there.”
Indeed, some of the criticism among blacks – that Obama is doing more for Wall Street than Main Street – echoes a larger liberal criticism of Obama. And the pressure he faces from black leaders is similar to that from the gay community, which wishes Obama was more proactive on its issues.
Obama has told gays that by the end of his administration, they’ll be pleased. He hasn’t said as much to blacks, but the balancing act that he faces among this critical portion of his party’s base has never been more daunting for a Democratic president.
Andra Gillespie, a scholar on black politics at Emory University in Atlanta, says Obama’s challenge was to be expected. “Obama is still working it out, because he’s the first person in this position,” she says. “There’s no blueprint.”