No More Excuses, Mr. President | The Nation


No More Excuses, Mr. President

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Obama speaks at the NAACP anniversary convention in New York.

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Adam Howard
Adam Howard is the former Assistant Web Editor of The Nation and currently the News Editor of The Grio.

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With the revelation last night/this morning that veteran Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd(CT) and Byron Dorgan (ND) are not seeking re-electionthis year, the mainstream press is going wild with speculation that theseretirements herald doom for the Democrats in this year's midtermelections. This is despite that fact that they are almost a year awayand that six, count 'em (Bunning, Brownback, LeMieux, Bond,Gregg, and Voinovich) six, GOP senators are retiring this year as well asseveral other Republicans in the House.Still, a narrative is forming (and we all know how powerful politicalnarratives can be) and if Obama and the Democrats don'tget in front of this soon it could become a self-fulfillingprophesy--the pundits have decided it's 1994 all over again.

For those youngsters out there who may not remember, in November of '94Congressional approval was at an all-time low and President Clinton's approval numbers weremired in the low 40s after his failure to pass healthcare reform. The result was a Republican landslide that dominated Congress until 2006. But2010 can be different and in some ways it already is. The public clearlyhas a lot more good will in the bank for Obama, he remains close to orat 50 percent approval in most public opinion polls--despite roughly six months of consistently bad press. Healthcare reform will likely be passed by the end of this month, albeit a comprised bill, but a political and strategic victory nonetheless. In addition if the Democrats get aggressive on immigration, education and climate change (which are all on the legislative agenda for this year) and continue to rack up victories it'll be easier to contrast themselves with "TheParty of No". Naturally there needs to be significant movement on jobstoo by the White House and Democrats in Congress, my hunch is that 10percent number hovers like a shadow over anything the party in powerdoes.

True, losing Dorgan (as JohnNichols writes) is a significant blow. He was a strong progressivein an undeniably right-leaning state and it will be exceedingly difficultfor any other Democrat to replace him. ChrisDodd, on the other hand, despite having many virtues, was totally tainted by scandal(even Michael Moore went after him in Capitalism: A LoveStory) and was likely to lose his re-election campaign. Hisdeparture, while perhaps bittersweet, clears theway for Connecticut's popular Democratic attorney general, RichardBlumenthal, to capture his seat. It seems unlikely to me that aprogressive state like Connecticut would send a Republican to representtheir state alongside nominal Independent Joe Lieberman.


Permit me to borrow one our president's most famous turns ofphrase--Carrie Prejean's story could "only happen in America." Most ofus who don't consume a daily diet of shows like Access Hollywoodand TMZ would normally not have heard of Miss Prejean, but now that she'sbecome a regular on Fox News, an author and poster child for "Palinized" conservative women everywhere--she's almost unavoidable. Most recently she appeared on Larry King Live, where she repeatedly snapped at the septuagenarian host for being "inappropriate."



For the uninitiated, a quick recap:



Carrie Prejean was competing the Donald Trump-funded Miss USA pageant, and was representing California. Apparently she was well ahead in points when she reached the question-and-answer segment. Openly gay blogger Perez Hilton, serving as a judge, asked her about her position on same-sex marriage. To which she replied (emphasis mine):


In an environment that resembled a revival much more than a conference, the NAACP repeatedly and enthusiastically sought to reaffirm its relevance last week as it celebrated its centennial anniversary. Speaker after speaker insisted, somewhat defensively, that we need the NAACP "now more than ever" and with its young and charismatic new CEO, Benjamin Jealous, the organization made a significant push to court more youthful members. But every speech and presentation was inevitably overshadowed by the most prominent person of color on the planet--President Barack Obama.

Naturally, no event during the week conjured up more anticipation than the president's address. After nearly six years of being snubbed by George W. Bush, the NAACP's community was sure to offer a hero's welcome to the nation's first black president--and he did not disappoint them. In one of his most emotionally charged, relaxed and almost conversational speeches he proclaimed it was "good to be here among friends."

This performance truly would halt any pundit opining about Obama's supposed lack of passion and conviction in their tracks. In front of the first predominately black audience he has addressed since his inauguration, the president did not shy away from tough questions and from examining the ugly side of life in America for people of color.

"I stand here on the shoulders of giants," declared Obama as he wove through the NAACP's storied history and name-checked heroes like W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. But after starting with effusive praise for the NAACP, Obama transitioned into his patented nuanced prose. It was the politics of personal responsibility that he preached and while some have argued that the president appears pompous when he delves into these matters--the audience he addressed was grateful for the message.

When Obama speaks to a black audience his voice drops an octave, he allows himself to swagger, he breaks from his script and he appears to genuinely be having a good time. But he was also deadly serious. Too many young black children grow up with an "internalized sense of limitation," he said, and as minorities grow to become majorities in America, we can not afford to let these children fall behind. He made it clear that what's needed to improve education will be both more money and more reform.

"I want our kids to aspire to be a Supreme Court justice, to be the president of the United States," Obama said to overwhelming applause. He spoke of riding by street corners and seeing the young men presumably dealing drugs and how he often thinks to himself, "there but for the grace of God go I." He credited the perseverance of his mother, who kept a rebellious and troubled young Barack in line. And he earnestly stressed his personal desire to see "all the other Barack Obamas and Michelle Obamas out there have a chance" to succeed.

Beyond the anxieties of African-Americans, who he acknowledged are "out of work more than anybody else," Obama mentioned "Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country," "Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God," and "our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked and denied their rights." "We want everybody to participate in the American Dream." These are all unassailable sentiments, but they have far too rarely been expressed by an American president--so the effect was refreshing, encouraging but also a little bit ambiguous.

The theme of the speech, if so broad and expansive a message can be boiled down, was more or less "no excuses." There's no excuse for discrimination of any kind, no excuse for bad parenting, for wage disparity and racial profiling. It was not a lecture or a harangue, more a declaration of principles. However, since we are now in the business of not making any more excuses, what excuse is there for lack of antidiscrimination policy initiatives emanating from the Obama White House? If "prejudice has no place in the United States of America," as Obama emphatically declared--then why has his administration not just turned a blind eye but enforced the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell military discrimination policy?

For many progressives the era of making excuses for Obama and accepting excuses from him is rapidly coming to a close. Few could have expected that he would have thoroughly altered the country's civil rights landscape just six months into his presidency, but even his most skeptical supporters did not expect him to be the foot-dragger in chief on gay rights or legislation that would help poor people of color facing eviction renegotiate bad loans. Amid the cheers and the resurgent hope there is a bit of a bitter aftertaste and the realization that even with a black president it's not a good time to be black in America.

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