Even three years later, a dispassionate assessment of Obama’s presidency remains a rhetorical minefield – especially given President Trump’s continued efforts to erase his predecessor’s legacy. But we have found you a guide.
If you are at the AJC Decatur Book Festival as the four o'clock hour approaches this Sunday, stop by the Marriott Conference Center to catch Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.
She's got a book out that lays down the guardrails on the topic of the 44th president: "Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols, and Hope." (Manchester University Press.)
Gillespie’s key question: Is black America better off because of Obama’s eight years in the White House, or was he more aspiration than substance?
“Everyone agrees that the election of the first black president was symbolically important,” Gillespie told me. “But the president can’t be unilateral. There are all these partners that have to be willing to play their role in the process, and during the Obama administration, oftentimes there were places where the partners were not willing to play ball with him.”
As Trump does now, Obama headed up a federal government “structured for incremental change,” Gillespie said. Which is why it is worth pressing candidates like Warren and Sanders to explain how they intend to accomplish the vast changes in the American system that they promise.
You won’t be surprised to find Gillespie’s judgments of the Obama years mixed. High school graduation rates increased, hate crime prosecution increased, and as did life expectancy. Home ownership and college attendance decreased.
What’s refreshing is that Gillespie comes at her conclusions by the numbers. She counts. And tabulates. Nearly everything.
One of the raps on Obama, a man with a biracial background and a Pacific Rim upbringing, was his reluctance to frame issues in racial terms. “His campaign posture was to frame things in universal terms,” Gillespie said.
Clearly, African-Americans were signature beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act. “But race rarely got mentioned in discussions of health care,” Gillespie said. She knows this because she counted the references – or lack of them — in years of press releases issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Her book was originally targeted for 2012. But finding ways to quantify the Obama administration took time.
One Obama shortcoming she identified, through numbers, was the lack of a targeted program to reduce the unemployment gap between blacks and whites. Yes, black unemployment was reduced under Obama, who inherited the Great Recession. But the gap survives even now. As low as it is, black unemployment remains double the rate of white unemployment.
“If somebody is in a yacht and somebody is in a dinghy — yes, a rising tide lifts all boats, but a yacht is still a yacht and a dinghy is still a dinghy,” Gillespie said.
The Emory researcher also quantifies the racism that the nation’s first black president labored under, and how his very name became a dog-whistle to some Republicans.
There was “Obamacare,” of course. But there was also the family dog. Who also fell victim to the dog-whistle.
Gillespie cites the University of California (Irvine) colleague who found that when a photo of the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog was identified as “Splashy Kennedy,” the canine was wildly popular in a 1,000-respondent survey. But when Bo Obama’s real named was used, he suffered a 50-point drop in favorability — a plunge that tracked with the racial attitudes of those polled.
Gillespie has some intriguing paragraphs on how Chicago-born Michelle Obama, who often noted that she was the descendant of slaves, “lent her husband an air of cultural legitimacy.”
“Indeed, some people contend that Mrs. Obama’s embrace of childhood obesity as a signature advocacy issue was in fact a way for the Obamas to unobtrusively inject race into policy discussions in a non-threatening way,” Gillespie writes.
There’s another book in that. And Gillespie intends to write it.
Her current book isn’t wholly based on numbers. Gillespie notes occasions where President Obama’s appeals to black audiences were off-key. One was his 2013 commencement address to graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta.
"You’re giving it to a group of men who are graduating from college. These aren’t the guys who you tell, ‘Don’t be lazy,’” she noted. “The fact that we can point out a lot of those moments in his rhetoric is a very legitimate critique.”
Obama announced his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in 2014. It was a public-private venture aimed at disadvantaged young men of color. The program, Gillespie notes in her book, “ignored the fact that these young men have sisters and female neighbors who live in the same communities and face the same risks and challenges.”
But there are occasions, Gillespie admits, when symbolism is indeed more important than a measurable statistic. What’s not in her book is the fact that Gillespie has personal connections to two of the most disturbing acts of political violence of the last decade.
Gillespie earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. When they marched there in 2017, the white supremacists – some of whom were very fine people, according to President Trump – passed by her old dorm.
Two years earlier, she had been among the mourners at the funeral service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston — one of nine congregants murdered by a young white supremacist.
This is the service that saw Obama launch into an acapella version of “Amazing Grace.”
I don’t like to give away the ending of books, but I think Gillespie’s merits an exception. I’ve never read a closing passage like it. In the largest sense, how we view Obama’s legacy will depend on what comes next, she writes:
“We do not know yet the extent to which President Trump, through his bravado and seeming disregard for norms, will indelibly reshape American political institutions. If he succeeds in permanently transforming American government— and especially if this success marginalizes blacks— then Obama’s legacy will be moot.”