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Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School

2013

Glistening
A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux

Archive

Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Once More about Obama

I have written so often about Barack Obama that I know I am beginning to repeat myself. But after reading and hearing a glut of put - downs of Obama from both the right and left - from the Right: anti-Israel “appeaser,” the Antichrist, Marxist and un-American, and “class warrior” for trying to achieve some sense of economic justice by shifting a bit of the tax burden. And from the Left: Wall Street lapdog, politically spineless, and an “Uncle Tom” who fails to confront racial issues. Those descriptions barely scratch the surface of what his countless critics have been able to come up with. Given this barrage of attacks, I felt I had to write something more about him.

I admit that I was a passionate supporter of Obama during the 2008 election campaign and for a long time afterwards.  And though never uncritical (e.g., disturbed by the Geithner and Summers appointments), I have been too slow to voice reservations about his policy decisions, and governing style. I continue to admire his grace, intelligence, and sense of nuance, and clearly see him as far better than any of the odious Republican alternatives that range from belligerent, know-nothings like Rick Perry to a wealthy opportunist devoid of any conviction like Mitt Romney.

I also have no illusions about the gap between campaigning and governing - the vast difference between indulging in idealistic rhetoric, and then trying, despite an immovable opposition, to pass a legislative agenda.  I have also always assumed that wielding power demands the ability to negotiate and make compromises, and I have experienced in my lifetime how even politicians we find sympathetic or admirable do things that repel us (e.g., FDR and the internment of Japanese Americans during WW2, or Obama recently caving in on tightening federal standards for ozone pollution, which may put the lives of millions of Americans at risk).

But in the last six months or so, I have begun to gradually feel disenchanted with Obama. What I once perceived to be necessary, pragmatic tactics, at times seems like paralysis. For too long, Obama has courted independents (what it means to be one politically has always eluded me), and naively believed in comity by pursuing a bipartisan strategy. That has begun to look like masochism on his part - the Republicans intractable and cynically committed to obstruction. In addition, the Republicans have rarely treated him with the respect that the office demands. I have felt that the President has been too passive, the compromises too great, and his bargaining skills limited.

Yes, he has become more combative recently, with his new populist economic plan - the Jobs Act - that among other things demanded that the richest Americans pay higher taxes to help cut soaring US deficits. In response to the speech New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote that he thought there has been an “encouraging shift of tone.” But Blow is still wary that he has “finally realized that you can’t rub the belly of the beast that wants to eat you,” and that you finally must “bring the monster to heel.”

Blow is one of a number of black intellectuals who have been critical of Obama. Though he’s been utterly free of the cant of Cornel West, the showy, egocentric Princeton philosophy professor and Socialist, who has attacked Obama for having “a certain fear of free black men” (of course, referring to himself).

 An analysis of the criticism of Obama made by black intellectuals of the Left is one aspect of the first book written by a black public intellectual on racial politics and the Obama presidency - Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line (Pantheon Books). Kennedy is a balanced, cool writer, who avoids the hyperbolic and rhetorical. The book at times rehashes the known, but it’s filled with incisive insights about African-American attitudes towards Obama.

Kennedy writes that most blacks don’t have “excessive expectations” of Obama that would be easily disappointed. “They expect him to do what he can, consistent with political practicalities, to push the country in a progressive direction.” In turn, what they want from him is, in Kennedy’s words, “that Obama continue to identify as black, and not undermine their feeling of pride.  And Kennedy goes on, that if Obama has offered no black agenda, it is sufficient, as it was for Bill Clinton, that he just didn’t neglect them. “But their pleasure in Obama’s victory was much greater than in Clinton’s, “there was collective joy at witnessing the ascendancy of a black president, who is vocally appreciative of the sacrifices of the countless Negroes who have fought for a better racial deal."

So Obama, despite being in power at a time where black unemployment has risen to 16.7% in August, its highest level since 1984, has still held the support of most black Americans.

 Kennedy concludes in his usual nuanced style, stating that he doesn’t desire Obama to display “courage or ideological purity.” He just wants him to govern, despite political constraints, in a liberal manner. And he, Kennedy, is far from uncritical of Obama, suggesting that he does not merit a ‘free pass from progressives.”
Yes, given how much power and wealth is concentrated in the few, and the depth of social and economic pain, Obama has to be called to account. Otherwise, none of his obvious virtues will grant any substance to his historical legacy.