Warning: I'm in a bad mood. I've been reading comments on a friend's blog (The Rant by Tom Degan) and I've finally reached my limit. I've tried to not let the debate over Obama's job performance among progressives get personal but I've finally accepted that for me, it is personal. President Obama represents everything that I hoped for when I was growing up a little black girl in the segregated South. I remember hearing the grownups talk about politics. They would ruefully shake their heads and discuss the lack of Negroes in positions of authority. No one even spoke of a black man being president; it was so out of reach. But I secretly thought about being president someday, ignoring that my gender as well as my race made that unlikely.
When I read Tom's blog post, "Time to Get Moving," I thought it was reasonably balanced. I didn't fully agree with his assessment of Obama or his review of FDR's presidency but his post didn't engender my foul mood. I concur that a great many Americans of voting age have a deficit of knowledge when it comes to the history of this country. However, I also think one of our failures is that we idealize historical figures and make them into icons that they never were. The problem is that no one in the immediate present can ever measure up to these past icons which never really existed, at least not as portrayed.
Which brings me to consideration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the president that so many progressives have repeatedly compared Obama to and always find Obama lacking. Roosevelt just told Congress what he would and would not do and shoved his New Deal through, Congress be damned. Only, that isn't factual; the real story is much more complex.
FDR moved the country forward through a very difficult time. However, he didn't walk on water. No president ever has.
FDR had to deal with the southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats. They and a great deal of the country opposed anything that even vaguely resembled civil rights for black Americans. Roosevelt needed the southern votes to pass his legislation; so he compromised big time on civil rights issues. FDR failed to support proposed federal anti-lynching legislation. Lynching was a family sport that was ever growing in the South during FDR's administration but he refused to get behind efforts by blacks and white civil rights advocates efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. FDR also refused to integrate the armed forces, leaving that to Truman to begin the integration of the armed forces in 1946. Blacks fought for this country but weren't allowed to train on the white military bases nor to interact with their white counterparts. When they came home, it was to return to the same segregation and Jim Crow laws that they faced prior to joining the military. FDR sold out black Americans in order to push through his New Deal.
It was also FDR's administration that interred Japanese Americans in camps during WWII. FDR made nine appointments to the Supreme Court and eight of those nine justices supported the administrations's decision to strip Japanese Americans of property and homes, and place them in confinement in Korematsu v. United States (1944).
Then there were the provisions of the New Deal, great intentions but not always realized.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to inflate prices by reducing farm acreage. This meant white farm owners (it was 1933 and blacks were sharecroppers, not farm owners) were paid to let their fields lie fallow, which often resulted in the eviction of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, a significant number of whom were African Americans. In addition, the Department of Agriculture, paid farmers to destroy crops and slaughter livestock while millions of Americans went hungry.
The cornerstone of the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The NIRA also authorized the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which organized cartels, fixed wages and prices, and, under section 7(a), established the practice of collective bargaining, whereby a union selected by a majority of employees exclusively represented all employees. Sounds like a good idea but many of these compulsory unions closed their doors to black workers. If you weren't a member of the union, you couldn't work in that particular industry. The NIRA was in effect from June 1933 until May 1935 when the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional.
My point is that when one starts talking about remembering history, it's important to remember all of it. My point is that every president has had his less than stellar moments because politics has always been about compromise. For every gain, you surrender something. It's a balancing act; you hope that what you get is worth what you give up.
I think that all of the expressed disappointment in Obama is unmerited and I'm particular tired of the dismissal of Obama as fearful of not being liked or being a coward. Have you ever been the first person of your race to enter into a position that has always been held by another race? I have and it is the most difficult step that a person can take. You have to deal with your own people expecting that their interests will take priority, those of the other race who feel that you don't deserve the position, and those of the other race who mythologized you into an archetype of nobility and are disappointed to find out that you are only human and don't walk on water. In the mean time, you actually have to carry out the duties of your job and remain civil and calm while not only you are being attacked, but in Obama's case, his wife is the object of ridicule, compared to various members of the simian family in right wing publications on a fairly regular basis.
The courage that it took for Obama to run for president is phenomenal in a country where assassination is not unheard of and it was less than 50 years ago when lynching of black men and women was public entertainment, documented in photographs of the crowds of men women and children in attendance. (According to the Tuskegee Institute, lynching occurred as late as 1968). When Billie sang about southern trees bearing strange fruit, she wasn't merely being metaphorical.
I'm tired of whites who supported Obama in 2008 acting as if they did him a favor and righteously declaring their indignant disappointment. Enjoy your right to be critical of anyone but don't expect me to like it and I'm exercising my right to say so. The man has worked within the confines of Republicans who have publicly declared that their goal is to ensure that he is not re-elected. That has been their stated goal since his inauguration. Instead of bitching about what he hasn't done or disagreeing with what he has, take a look at what he has accomplished in spite of having a rock equivalent to that of Sisyphus to continually push up the hill.
I cried when Obama won. I cried for the years when the signs over the water fountains said white and colored. I cried for the stores in which I couldn't sit and the lunch counters that my mother grabbed me away from lest someone take offense. I cried for the time my mother entered the wrong door at the clinic because my knee was bleeding profusely and she was confused, and she was met at the door by a white woman who told her to go to the colored entrance. I cried because of the job my mother quit because the KKK threaten to kill me and my brother and sister if she didn't. I cried for my father who went to Korea and had to ride in the back of the bus to go to boot camp. I cried because my mother died two months before Barack Obama became president and she never got to see President Obama. I'm proud of the President and what he has accomplished and I think that he has done a far better job than this country deserves.
[Suggested reading for two differing contemporary historical perspectives on FDR and the New Deal:
Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression. New York: Crown Forum (2003).
McMahon, Kevin J. Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2003).
A review, "Bad Deal," of both books by Damien W. Root.]