Saturday, October 29, 2011

Obama, FDR, and Me

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 DepressionNew 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.]


Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Good one, Sheria,

Yes, history is not black or white - but too many shades of gray. We forget that at times. We shouldn't.

All the best,

Tom Degan

Straka said...

This is a very good and extremely important piece... do you think that you could get it published someplace with more (nation-wide?) exposure? I think you should at least try, I really think people should read this.

(BTW, I am not black, but then, neither am I an American though I've lived in the country for a while.)

Sheria said...

Straka, thank you for reading and your kind recommendation.

Sheria said...

Thanks, Tom. I want to reiterate that it wasn't your piece that rocked my equilibrium, it was some of the comments left by readers! Your piece made me think, as always, and that's why I enjoy reading your blog.

Sybil said...

Thanks again Sheria, You always leave me much better educated than I was when I first start to rea dyour wise words..I'm sorry to say that this country....and I'm sure it is no different from any very insular in it's teaching of history and we rarely get another countries "real" history only that which any eductae dperson shoudl find out for themselves...and how many do that...they prefer to believe everything that is drip fed to them by whichever party that particual teacher feels most attatched to.....more's the pity.
Love Sybil xx

Sue said...

My first time commenting here Sheria.

Beautifully said. I'm a white woman who cries when I read the words of your struggles, the struggles of your ancestors too. I'm also extremely proud of Barack and Michelle Obama. We are blessed to have them. I pray daily for their safety and for 5 more years of President Obama's leadership.

Love your blog, I will be back!

John Myste said...

Excellent piece. I book marked it in my FDR section.

As for Obama, he has, and will have, my continuing support.

What people expect from him overall is not fair and is unreasonable.

What he did to take us a step closer to Universal Healthcare, regardless of whether it works or not, was more courageous and visionary than anything anyone else has done in my lifetime.

He is always looking 40 years into the future while everyone else is looking at next week.

History will judge him and non can rightfully judge him now, because he is looking at a much broader picture than anyone in our current political climate, fellow liberals included.

He may well turn out the be one of the greatest presidents in history and if he does or does will be solely controlled by circumstance.

Lisa :-] said...

You make a pile of valid points, Sheria. I personally am one of those whites who voted for Obama. I cried when he was elected. I supported him three years ago and I support him now. He has had the devil's own time trying to get anything done in the political climate that has taken hold of our nation, and he has had to endure crap from the media that no white man would have had to tolerate.

Disappointed progressives have to ask themselves what their choices really are in 2012. Vote Republican? Refuse to vote, or vote for some alternative candidate, thereby ensuring a Republican victory? Anyone who doesn't like what's going on now had best concede that putting a Republican in the White House is not going to improve things any.

Vagabonde said...

I second Straka above. This post should be read by many people – try to send it to Daily Kos or Huffington or send it to Donna Brazile (I met her when she was in Atlanta – she is super nice.) I think both the Democrats and the Republicans idolized some of their past presidents and give them talents they never had. You are absolutely right. The Republicans won’t vote for anything he proposes, to the point of hurting this country badly – then they say they love this country! It does not matter what Obama tries to do, the Republicans turn it around. I have heard some terrible comments about the president here (I live in Georgia.) (BTW I am not black either, but I have dual citizenship.)

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I hope our President can find his voice and sing the praises of what he has accomplished. He has done a phenomenal job.

Sheria said...

Thanks for the supportive comments, I'm feeling a bit like Sally Fields! Y'all have definitely improved my mood. I have to remember that the world is a mixed bag and that people are far too complex to be reduced to simply good and bad. I have to remember to focus on the good in people. Thank you.

RelevantThinker said...

"when one starts talking about remembering history, it's important to remember all of it." Couldn't agree more. So let's not forget that Obama came in full of hope and change and ideas and a BRAIN! But what happened? Is it enough to say that he was stymied by republicans and HAD to cave in order to get ANYTHING done? Not for me. I know that he, like Clinton before him, sold out to Wall Street (NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagll, thanks Bill and Larry. For nothing!) "Time after time" he could have FOUGHT for what he said he believed in. Instead, in many ways, he is worse than BUSH! The so-called PATRIOT Act is still with us and stronger than ever. Gitmo is still in operation. We are still fighting the oil wars and losing our soldiers every day. We still don't have a REAL national healthcare policy. We rank among the worst in the developed world when it comes to doing the right thing for THE PEOPLE! It's hard to believe that a 2nd term will be different, just because Obama is now in campaign mode, and set to make all those pretty speeches once again. Stand up and FIGHT the corporate Right, damn it! Show us you have a spine (IS there a democrat today that has one!?)! BE the president you told us you WOULD be!! You're up against CLOWNS! And traitors! Please, Mr President, speak softly, but carry a big stick! It's LONG overdue!

Sheria said...

Relevant Thinker, I find you to neither be relevant nor much pf a thinker. You repeat the same tired rhetoric like a disappointed child who finds out that there really is no Santa Claus instead of appreciating the gifts that your parents bring to you.

Relevant Thinker said...

I'm sick of the "tired rhetoric" that says, we have to accept the crumbs that the democrat politicians give us, because, you know, "it could be worse." If that is the extent of our hopes and our dreams and our demands, then that is all we will EVER get. We are all TIRED of democrats who act more like republicans. Obama is black, The first black president. GREAT! Fantastic! But if you're not doing the work the people expect of democrats then what difference does it make WHAT color you are! Herman Cain is black. Should we put that CLOWN in the White House, just because? I don't think so. All we ask is for democrats to do their damn job or get out of the way of those who will! If there is such a possibility today in America, Inc.!

Sheria said...

Relevant, I'm not settling for the crumbs. I don't agree that the President has done nothing. NO I don't support Herman Cain, nor did I support Obama solely because of his race. I think that Obama's list of accomplishments far outweighs the list of things that he has been unable to do. I think that it is petulant, naive, and ignorant to believe that this country as a whole is ready to move towards a socialist government.

I don't believe that Obama is a socialist but there are lots of people on the Right who do. Pragmatism requires working within the culture of the country which one governs. Change is generally incremental and not accomplished in one fell swoop. Obama promised a vision of change, not that he would implement that change in three years. I still trust and believe in his vision.

The Affordable Health Care Act isn't perfect but it is a step towards an improved health care system. It is also the first such legislation in more than 70 years. While this country still has serious problems when it comes to equal rights for all, DADT has been repealed, a significant step in the right direction.

I think that the bailouts have been a necessity. Allowing m ajor industries such as the auto industry to fail would have poured hundreds of thousands of Americans into the ranks of the unemployed and rebuilding those industries would have taken decades. There really is such a thing as too big too fail. The bailouts weren't because the corporations deserved it but because not to do so would have thrown the country into a depression to rival that of 1929. We teetered on the precipice of total ruin. We have a long way to go for recovery but we avoided falling over the edge. If you don't think that the economy could be worse, take a look at the historical records for the crash of 1929. It took a World War to aid in that recovery.

Obama isn't my "best that we can do" candidate. He is an intelligent and strategic leader, and I still believe that he has the skills to lead this country.

Anonymous said...

Sheria - Your Santa Claus metaphor is right on. I often start to compose comments on your posts, but then can't live up to your standard of eloquence.

I too have been annoyed and then appalled by the ugliness of comments on the left, and agree with your analyses. Something I ran across just now that should buoy us up is that a large majority of Democrats (72%) believe Obama is doing fine, according to Gallup, and an even larger percentage of liberal Democrats (78%).

It is a loud few who don't see it (and of course, Republicans, since he stands for everything that have been told is dangerous and un-American)

Mark said...

I can't help but contrast this post with the one that precedes it. It seems that you feel we should temper our criticism of Obama because he is our first black President who it took enormous bravery to run in the first place. But Herman Cain is evil. Even though he came up 15 years before Obama, dealing with far greater racism, you don't seem to feel he merits the same leeway you ask us to give Obama. You take criticism of Obama very personally, while criticizing Cain in very personal terms. It seems a contradiction to me. Either race should be taken into account with both, or with neither.
Listen, I love Obama and hate Cain. But I criticize both of them independent of their race, on the basis of ideology and action. I'm not letting Obama off any easier than I would any white President doing exactly the same things. I pleaded with the President back in a September 2009 blog post to get combative ("What's it going to take Barack?"). I could not understand how everybody with eyes and ears knew the Republicans were NEVER going to cooperate, but the President kept giving a go at a "bipartisanship" that was SO CLEARLY never going to work, and DIDNT. (I could only posit some psychological guesses about a discomfort with confrontation, that you seemed to hear as emasculation of a black man no white male had the right to make. And yet you don't object to my far sharper mockery of Herman Cain-in fact you post my portrayal of him as a pumpkin--thanks btw. Would that be racist if Cain was a liberal?)
Lo and behold, after a disastrous walloping in 2010, the President has finally come around, leading now exactly as all we "unhelpful" progressives asked him to lead all along. How could we be wrong in urging that strategy before, but right now? I take it you like the Obama's recent emergence as a populist fighter, that you're not criticizing him for it? But you criticized us for urging it before. I find it unfair.
All I ever asked of the President is that he be the man I voted for. The man leading us now is that man. It would have been REALLY helpful if he'd showed up about 18 months ago, I can only assume that he ignored his own instincts because centrist advisers kept insisting the economy would improve or that he couldn't possibly lead from the left--which, for all of his forgotten missteps, is finally what FDR did.
The President matches FDR in his unparalleled capacity to communicate ideas and win hearts and minds. But he has woefully underused the bully pulpit, and there isn't anything unfair or racist in that criticism, and certainly nothing that you should for any reason take personally.

Sheria said...

My criticism has nothing to do with critiques of Obama's policies or even his choice of leadership styles. My criticism has to do with what I perceive as the arrogance of folks who have never been black in this country and borne the burden of being the "first" to represent their race, (and we are always looked at as representative of our race, we never have the luxury of just being an individual)in characterizing Obama's choices as being based on some need to be liked, or fear of standing up to anyone. I find such a characterization to be a primal insult to everything that he has stood for and accomplished. I've made this clear many times; it's not the criticism that I object to, it's the nature of the criticism, much of which is a character attack and not an attack on his policies and choices. There is a substantial difference.

I consider Obama to be a shining example of a black person in a racist culture. I consider Herman Cain to be a sellout whose blackness is merely about skin color. There is a difference between being black and having brown skin color. I honestly thought that everyone knew this. It's the same as with feminism. Being female doesn't make one a feminist. I admire Gloria Steinem but I'm no fan of Phyllis Schafly. I also refuse to cloak Michelle Bachmann in the mantle of feminism. The only thing that Obama and Cain have in common is that they're both brown skinned men.

I don't share your belief that Obama made a mistake with his bipartisan policy efforts. I think that it was a necessary step. I believe that if he had initially come forward with a disregard for even making an attempt to work in a bipartisan manner that he would have set himself up as a self-made polarizing target. As it is, he can truthfully point out that it is the Republicans who have chosen to polarize this government in spite of his best effort to bring the factions together.

FDR actually did pretty much the same. He didn't begin his campaign in the "bully pulpit" at the start of his first term. Remember that FDR served three terms (12 years) as president and much of what is most remembered occurred in the latter half of his presidency, not the first three years.

Btw, FDR's missteps weren't small. The choices that he made delayed forward movement in the Civil Rights legislation for more than a decade. Still, I give him credit for making sacrifices and compromises in order to move a necessary agenda forward.

My problem with folks and FDR is that there is a false perception that FDR perfected his strategies from the start of his first term as president. History does not bear that out at all. It doesn't lessen what FDR accomplished but it does put it in perspective.

Obama has had three years and the criticism has been loud and vociferous since shortly following his inauguration. The current perception seems to be that at last he has figured out how to speak out and be strong. It doesn't appear to have crossed people's minds that rather than being some kind of pathetic wuss up until now that President Obama has made strategic moves to get to this point. The failure to even acknowledge that possibility is what pisses me off.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. "It doesn't appear to have crossed people's minds that rather than being some kind of pathetic wuss up until now that President Obama has made strategic moves to get to this point. "

And Mark, I didn't think she said "you feel we should temper our criticism of Obama because he is our first black President who it took enormous bravery to run in the first place." at all. The gist of her argument was that Obama was being held to a higher standard because he was black, which is a very different thing.

Beth said...

You know I'm in your court, Sheria, as well as the President's. It's easy to be an armchair quarterback; much harder to be out there getting hit play after play, especially when your offensive line isn't giving you much protection.

That's a fine metaphor, if I do say so myself! ;) Head up. We're all going to work hard to make sure there is a second term for Obama!


Nance said...

I enjoyed Tom's Rant, but I like this one even better. As you say, it really crawls all over me when the Left disses Obama. I've asked whether those who do so plan to vote and for whom. And I've asked what they hope to accomplish by dismissing the incumbent they intend to vote for. Some have said they hope to move the President further toward the progressive agenda.

I'm glad to see the direction Mr. Obama is taking now with his energized rhetoric and his executive orders, but I do not credit the negative reviews of the far Left with influencing that direction. I credit the praise he's received for championing the 99%. I recall that few of us are motivated by criticism.

I mean to vote FOR Mr Obama, not against the Republican candidate. I think the President is going to have a hugely productive first year in his second term.

Mark said...

If you read Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men, you'll see that Obama has a lot of trouble "swinging the sword" as he says. (and the President cooperated with the book and was extensively interviewed. Mr. Suskind is a big fan of Obama's and thinks recent Obama is the result of his learning from the mistakes of the beginning of his adminstration)
The idea that you would find this sort of characterization of Obama some kind of "primal insult" is very bizarre to me. I can name 100 people, black, white, male, female, who are nonconfrontational consensus-seekers by nature, and it is one of the least mean things one can say about another person. A "character attack" questions someone's integrity, honesty, ethics--none of which I've heard from the progressive left you have so upbraided. We have criticized his political skills and strategy in dealing with the Republicans--neither of which make any sense for you to take personally. Would you be taking it so personally if Joe Biden was President and being attacked as bad? I doubt it. You would defend him, but you wouldn't feel like you're little brother was getting beat up.

Sheria said...

I have to point out that saying that someone is afraid of not being liked is a far cry from saying that he or she seeks consensus. Using language such as "he needs to have some balls" is not complimentary. I have read such assessments on offered by progressives on FB and in blogs. Then there are the progressives and liberals who have labeled Obama as "Bush lite," a corporate tool, and a sellout. Nothing complimentary there either. The comments on "The Rant" that set me off were of this ilk. As I clearly stated, it wasn't Tom's post that disturbed me; I didn't agree with all of it but it was fair and balanced criticism not character attack.

Perhaps the issue is that you imagine that I'm critiquing your brand of Obama criticism. For the most part, I'm not, although you and Aaron have on occasion made the lack of balls statement, which I find insulting and sexist. Why should effective leadership be cast in terms of a strictly masculine attribute? I'd find it equally insulting if said about Hilary Clinton.

You have never attacked Obama's integrity and honesty but your assessment that the Left has not done so is way off base. Surely you haven't missed the entire campaign by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley to paint Obama as having betrayed the concerns of poor people, especially poor black people. West declares that Obama isn't really "black" because he was raised by white people and attended an ivy league law school. They've been all over the media with this stuff. Chris Hedges wrote a piece for The Nation giving credence to West's notion that Obama is a sellout.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon has written more than one article alleging that Obama has turned out to be just another George W. Bush and even worse that Obama intentionally mislead voters just to get elected. Nothing complimentary there.

Then there's Drew Westen's op ed piece in which he paints Obama as a timid, ineffective leader afraid of confrontation, not as a consensus builder.

Then there is Roger Hodge's book, published October 5, 2010, in which he lays out why Obama has betrayed the Left. The title makes Hodge's opinon clear before you even open the book: The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism. The book was published when Obama was less than two years into his presidency.It's available via Amazon.

I haven't imagined the attacks on Obama's character, nor am I a solo act in taking note of them. I've been careful to make it clear that I am not simply speaking of criticism of the president. Every leader should expect criticism. However, these attacks on Obama's character from the Left are significant. One can criticize a president and still support him but once someone declares a president to be unethical and a betrayer of the cause it's kind of unbelievable to later say, "But hey, vote for the guy any way." Cornel West's solution is to call for a third party candidate and so far, Ralph Nader is his anointed one.