Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Obama Effect: A Staggeringly High Rate of Cultural and Political Change

Barack Obama has triumphed not just by surviving but by thriving
against an opposition driven by hate and racism. Oh, and a dislike
of his economic and foreign policy ideas, as well.

Barack Obama has not won all his battles, not by a long shot. But where he has been successful is in the ways our society has changed so far during his tenure, often against long odds that it could happen at all. He has played a a vital role in helping to engineer it.

His very blackness has been a particular driver. As the first African-American president, he owned his special role as an outsider. Sure, he played the inside game with Wall Street, but like Bill Clinton before him, he picked his battles wisely. Busting Wall Street's chops was a non-starter. Wall Street, for one thing, is stronger and more dangerous than the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell wanted Obama to be a one-term president. McConnell couldn't deliver. Wall Street could but chose not to.

As an outsider, one with more than modest gifts of rhetoric and imagination, Barack Obama could help usher in change that colorless, less imaginative people might not be able to. George W. Bush could be brash -- and dangerous -- as a freewheeling decider with a penchant for invading countries. But change at home? Wasn't up to it, beyond making government less capable after rounds of tax cuts.

What Barack Obama could do, and did, was to lead our nation through periods of self-reflection. He was in part responsible for the new looks we gave to systemic problems. GLBT concerns were not going to be addressed under a George W. Bush climate. It could under an Obama. So, too, with the changes the country is undergoing with its examination of policing. Blacks are done with how they've been policed and incarcerated literally to death since basically back to the close of the Civil War. Progressive, self-aware whites are ready to help them.

We don't yet know what will come of some of this self-reflection. Obama was able to do little to stem the gun insanity this country seems intent on enduring. In fact, gun control or the lack thereof is a singular triumph of the right during the time of Obama. Fear of the BLACK triggered a rush to arm, primarily by rural and southern whites. No triumph for Barack there. The policing crisis may recede without real change. But I don't feel that. I feel, across the country, an anger, even among whites, that we've lost control of our justice system. When 12-year-olds are shot dead after less than two seconds of consideration -- for waving a toy gun -- something is terribly broken.

Don't forget the ongoing curtailment of property confiscation by law enforcement. Chalk up another one. Add to that the move away from criminalizing marijuana. I can see that movement beginning to dismantle the war-on-drugs infrastructure, which will chip away at our absurd incarceration rate. While we're talking about changing policing styles, add the abandonment of stop-and-frisk as well as the whole "broken windows" zero tolerance game. We need real community policing in this country. Boy, does Baltimore need it right now.

Women are winning rights -- and better pay, albeit slowly -- in this environment. Republicans have fought hard to keep women and their bodies under the control of father-knows-best paternalistic authoritarianism, but there are new cracks in that wall, as well.

Bill Clinton approached his presidency in very much the same way. Within days of his inauguration, he was set to welcome gays in the military. One of his own party, Georgian senator Sam Nunn, put the kibosh on that one. Maybe the country wasn't ready until 2009, but a less gifted leader than Obama might not have shepherded the radical changes through.

One critical feature of note: I suspect I'm not the first to figure this out -- though I've yet to hear anyone else suggest it -- but one thing has been obvious about Barack Obama. He's been the Jackie Robinson of presidents. He instinctively knew he'd get nowhere as the angry black man. His grace under fire during his presidency has been quite nearly heroic. In that, he'll leave a lasting mark as one whose dignity was more powerful that the opprobrium he was forced to endure.

We also shouldn't forget that, even with his drone strikes and failed ventures in Libya and elsewhere, he has essentially tried to reign in America's penchant for warmongering. We don't know yet how his foreign policy ventures will turn out, but he'll be remembered as a man of peace, not of war. And that's a start I hope succeeding presidents will continue.

All that and I didn't even mention Obamacare. It wasn't enough, but it was something, and probably all we could hope for in the environment he was working in.

I'd mention the steadily improving economy, but that signified no particular cultural shift, in spite of its being something that burnishes his legacy.

Here's to change, and more of it. We do have Barack Obama, in part, to thank for it.

Note. There's a lot that appears unchanged. The tea party, for example, looks very much like a cultural consolidation around a conservative ideology, one that will be difficult to dislodge. But I see a silver lining. I see it as the continual marginalization of a continually shrinking tribe of white evangelicals, mostly in the South -- with their frightened, white senior citizens in tow -- who have found themselves boxed in and increasingly irrelevant. If that happened on Obama's watch, too, then we have him to thank for that likely enduring political shift.

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