Yesterday on Twitter, I posted a photo of President Obama meeting with inmates at the El Reno Correctional Facility in Oklahoma and noted it was the first time any sitting U.S. president had ever visited a federal prison.
The reaction online was stunning. In a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, many were shocked that no other president had bothered to take a look inside one of the institutions that locks up millions of our fellow Americans. But others were thrilled that Obama was finally doing what voters expected him to do when they elected him in 2008.
I was surprised that numerous followers suggested we amend the Constitution to allow Obama to serve a third term. Several called him the GOAT, as in greatest of all time. A few called him "legendary." And one person noted his visit to the prison was "epic."
Twitter hyperbole aside, this all came on the same day in which Professor Cornel West accused author Ta-Nehisi Coates of avoiding "any critique of the Black president in power" and accused white and Black Neo-liberals of being "paralyzed" by their "Obama worship."
I've known and respected Dr. West for years, but I suppose I'd be one of those paralyzed Obama worshipers in his eyes. It was exactly one year ago, in July 2014, when I wrote here that Obama was the best president since World War II. I still believe that. In fact, I believe it more today than I did a year ago. That's not because I reflexively endorse everything Obama has done in office. It's because I've realistically looked at what he's done compared to every president before him.
In some areas, the president and I have disagreed. He supports capital punishment, which I firmly believe is wrong under all circumstances. He was slow to announce his support for marriage equality even when everyone with a brain knew he supported it. He tried, and fortunately failed, to negotiate a "Grand Bargain" with Republicans to cut the deficit at exactly the time when government should have been spending more money, not less, to stimulate the economy. And he didn't push for a government-sponsored public option in his health care plan, which many progressives thought would force insurance companies to compete by bringing down their costs considerably.
The point is Obama and I are not a perfect fit. On drone strikes, warrantless wiretaps, the Guantanamo detention center, deportation of immigrants, Arctic oil drilling and other issues, we've parted ways. I did not take a strong position on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that Obama won last month, but many progressives and labor unions strongly opposed it. And when the president first spoke about the Charleston massacre in June, I was criticized on Twitter for complaining that he failed to use the word "racism" in his remarks.
But then came his eulogy in Charleston, in what I believe was the best presidential speech I've ever heard, where the president finally articulated what many of us have wanted him to say for years. Some had cautioned the president not to speak on political issues at a funeral service, but he wisely ignored their advice. "For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens," he said. Taking down the flag would simply acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow were wrong, Obama added. All this came while many South Carolina lawmakers still argued it was "too soon" to talk about the flag because the state hadn't had time to grieve.
But President Obama didn't stop there. "For too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present," he said. "Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or a career."
Even before his astounding vocal performance of "Amazing Grace," Obama had suddenly become the president many Black Americans had yearned to hear. Or as Janell Ross wrote in the Washington Post, "the black president some worried about has arrived." It was such a groundbreaking speech that when the president spoke to the NAACP this week, he had to begin with a warning to manage expectations. "Let's get something out of the way up front. I am not singing today," he said to laughter and applause. He did, however, call for long overdue prison reform and criminal justice reform.
With time running out in his presidency and no more elections ahead for him, Obama has been on a roll since last November. He issued sweeping executive actions to allow five million undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. He reached a potentially historic agreement with China on climate change. He re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba. He negotiated a deal to dismantle Iran's nuclear weapons program. And this week he commuted the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders.
What's more impressive is that he did all those things in the face of stiff opposition from Republicans and in defiance of the mainstream media narrative that had prematurely labeled him a "lame duck." Maybe that's why he felt comfortable enough to use the N-word in a podcast interview last month and held a press conference where he only allowed women to ask questions at the end of last year.
Even before last November, the president had already led the effort to rescue the economy from the worst recession since the Great Depression, passed landmark financial reform legislation, enacted the most sweeping health care reform law in 50 years and cut the deficit by two-thirds. And while conservatives predicted Obama would be bad for business or weak on terrorism, the stock market doubled, the unemployment rate was nearly cut in half, the nation enjoys the longest streak of consecutive monthly job growth in history and the U.S. finally caught Bin Laden under his watch. If a white Republican president had done those four things, they'd be naming airports after him. But a few Democrats, to their shame, refused to defend the president or acknowledge his accomplishments in last year's midterm elections.
By the time Obama won big Supreme Court victories on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act last month, he had earned his place in history by solidifying elusive progressive goals that Democrats thought unattainable only a decade ago, and as a result his poll numbers climbed above 50 percent for the first time in two years.
This is what Cornel West and the progressive critics of President Obama fail to understand. Barack Obama is not and will never be the radical revolutionary who will dismantle our corrupt, racist, white supremacist capitalist system of government. But anyone who listened to his speeches when he ran for president in 2008 would know that he never promised to be that. What he did promise was to serve as an agent of change and hope to move the country in a different direction from the Bush era. And on that note he has most certainly delivered.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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