Does President Obama Owe You Anything?

Experts debate Obama's legacy to African-Americans.

Posted: 05/28/2013 11:48 AM EDT

Editors' note: This is part one of a two-part feature on President Obama and his legacy. The second half will appear on May 30.

As President Obama delivered one of his trademark speeches at Morehouse College's
commencement ceremony last week, the kind that leaves his audiences feeling both inspired and emotionally spent, he also did something rare.

The president spoke empathetically about race and addressed the challenges and obstacles that millions of struggling African-Americans face every day. He acknowledged that "there but for the grace of God," he could be walking in the shoes of those least fortunate unemployed, or worse in prison. To some listeners' joy, he uttered the word Black.

Rep. John Lewis, himself a Georgia institution, said the speech "spoke to their hearts and minds and souls."

Obama's Inauguration Day speech had a similar effect. And after a bruising campaign, many supporters anticipated that free from the shackles of seeking re-election, he would also be free to tackle some of the tough issues plaguing African-American communities, from high unemployment to low homeownership and educational attainment.

Hope was still alive, but were their expectations too high? And, if that is indeed the case, were they unreasonably so?

"It was an extraordinary feat, of course, that Obama was elected in the first place, and to come from where he did in such a short period of time," San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith said in an interview with BET.com. "To defeat people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and others and then to defeat Mitt Romney in a very, very difficult situation that was an extraordinary achievement."

But Smith, like many Obama supporters and critics, as well as those who consider themselves both, fear that his legacy to African-Americans, like his speeches, will be largely symbolic.

From the start, the president made it clear that he is the president of all of America, not just Black America. It's a fact that has frustrated those who hoped that having an African-American president would ensure that barriers would be broken and milestones made.

But even the most hopeful understand that overtly targeting Black issues would have been tantamount to political suicide. And the most pragmatic among them know that it would never have flown on Capitol Hill.

Instead, Obama has espoused the theory that a rising tide raises all boats. But that doesn't entirely fly with some political observers.

"The reality is that Black people have leaking boats, so a rising tide doesn't lift all of our boats: unemployment is a leaking boat, the prison industrial complex is a leaking boat, public education a leaking boat," Lehigh University professor and former BET.com contributor James Peterson told BET.com. "So if you want to lift all boats, you've got to plug some of those holes. Imagine how radically we could address the unemployment situation if we focused on Black and brown men who are most likely to be unemployed."

Despite his harsh assessment, Peterson acknowledges the challenges that President Obama faces. He and others also pointed to universal policies the president has initiated that will disproportionately improve the plight of African-Americans, such as the Affordable Care Act, the Black farmers settlement and his support for HBCUs and Black businesses, and noted the efforts of congressional Republicans to obstruct him every step of the way.

"I think Obama understands that if he had tried to directly address issues of concern to Blacks, it would have diminished his capacity to govern the country and he made that trade off," Smith said. "I don't like it, but I understand it."

Smith also added that if both chambers of Congress were controlled by Democrats, the president "might be willing to go out on a limb and propose policies that would directly target long-term poverty and long-term Black unemployment."

Part of the problem, some say, is that Obama has been too conciliatory toward Republicans. They also suspect that deep down, the president's views are actually to the right of those of the majority of Democrats and African-American voters.

"I think he has spent so much time trying to get along with the Republicans that the agenda of the center, not just the left, has not been his priority. And, actions speak louder than words," said one Congressional Black Caucus member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The political climate is significant, but I also think there could be much more push back on some of the things Republicans are trying to do and would never get from somebody if it's not in his genes."

The lawmaker also took umbrage at the way Obama handled his second-term cabinet appointments.

"It sends a very chilling message that African-Americans are being taken for granted or he doesn't deem us worthy of such positions. And it's really kind of sad," the CBC member said.

Such sentiments beg a very important question: Does the president actually owe African-Americans anything?

Check back on May 30 for the second part of this series.

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