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Originally published January 23, 2013

Washington View

Obama: A Transformative Figure or Merely a Black Figurine?

by Adrienne T. Washington

  •   Click on the photo to view additional Photos.
    President Barack Obama walks through the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, to the West Front an his ceremonial swearing-in ceremony during the 57th Presidential Inauguration. Photo/Molly Riley, Pool (AP Photo)

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Great are the expectations of President Barack Obama, the historic first African-American president who was inaugurated for his second term on Jan. 21.

The momentous hopes and aspirations are especially strong for the African American supporters whose votes made a critical difference in his victorious bid for reelection in 2012.

But what will be the legacy of this first African-American president with regard to addressing a “Black agenda?”

Will he be remembered as a transformative Black figure or nothing more than a Black figurine?

Now is “the time to act,” President Obama said during his second inaugural address, which was peppered with an ambitious litany of liberal initiatives that progressives expected to be passed during his first term in office. Indeed, he’s got to act now or never.

As President Obama steps into his second term, those high expectations have rightfully grown to include rewards and demands, as some African-American leaders, such as Marc Morial of the National Urban League, have presented the administration with a wish list, a so-called “Black agenda.” Others, like scholar Cornel West have harshly expressed their disillusionment with the Obama administration’s track record on issues pertinent to Blacks like high unemployment, incarceration and foreclosure.

West even bristled at the president using Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible during the public swearing in ceremony on Jan. 21, the national holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.

Recently Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) went as far as to call President Obama’s overwhelmingly White male inner circle “an embarrassment.” MSNBC anchor Soledad O’Brien made an on-air wager of $100 with a White House aide insisting that statistics would confirm her assertion that the Obama cabinet does not reflect the proportion of minorities and women in the American population. The Congressional Black Caucus sent the president names of two of its members for consideration for cabinet nominations—Rep. Mel Watts (D-N.C.) for secretary of commerce and Rep. Barbara Lett, (D-Calif.) for secretary of labor—to broaden the pool of candidates.

African Americans also will be watching to see who President Obama names to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be taking up affirmative action and voting rights during his second term. Many are hoping he will tap a Black woman.

For his part, President Obama has said it is too early to judge his appointments and priorities. Although he has been mostly silent on the issue of race, save the case of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, his spokesmen defend the president’s emphasis on job creation, education spending and working to save the middle class from further erosion as imperatives that cross racial lines. He is the president of everyone, they state, not only of African Americans.

Why then, do so many Blacks feel “dissed” by him?

Among the president’s defenders is Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) who told a television interviewer that “He’s off to a strong start.” She was referring to President Obama’s seemingly tougher stance in negotiating a better “fiscal cliff deal” with recalcitrant Republicans. She acknowledged, though, that many of the cuts that led to a compromise, reductions in so-called “entitlements,” like Social Security and Medicare, are likely to be made on the backs of the poor, the elderly and Blacks.

Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University political science professor and noted political commentator, said that while he’s happy President Obama was reelected, he’s “frustrated” by his failure to address Black issues like the high incarceration rate of Black men, “which is decimating black communities across the country.”

And, “I’d like to see him talk more about poverty,” he said.

Fauntroy’s frustration also extends to the president’s diehard supporters, such as Rev. Al Sharpton, who do not allow anyone, especially other African Americans, to voice even valid and constructive criticism of his policies.

Some “Black people are just happy to have a black president,” he said.

Fauntroy suggested that although President Obama’s second term “will be about legacy building, I’m not expecting much as it relates to a Black agenda.”

He hopes he’s wrong.

This is the inaugural Washington View column by veteran journalist and political commentator Adrienne Washington. She will write weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send concerns and other correspondence to her via email at editor@AFRO.com.



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