Twice in 2008, I stood in the long lines at the Alabama State University polling place to vote for Barack Obama. First in the primary, then again in November. ASU is a historically black university, and many of the neighborhoods surrounding it are majority-black. I had never seen so many people show up to vote— nor have I seen so many since.
I was on board with Barack Obama’s message from the first time that I saw him on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, when he explained why he was the best candidate to lead the country. The world has changed, he said, we are no longer operating within the Cold War politics that form the Baby Boomers’ worldview, and as such, the nation needs a younger leader with a vision for our times. I agreed, I was ready for a president from my generation, and Barack Obama had my vote, especially in the general election, when John McCain’s bland, backward-looking conservatism was the other option.
The next year, after Barack Obama had become our nation’s first black president, Alabama stood on its own historic precipice, when a black US Congressman named Artur Davis was running strong as Democratic candidate for governor. The Democrats had controlled state government since the end of Reconstruction, and winning that primary usually meant winning in November. However, Artur Davis lost in the primaries to then-Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks – who then lost in the general election to Republican Robert Bentley – but it looked for a moment like stolid old Alabama’s worst nightmare might come true: a black president and a black governor.
Though Artur Davis’ defeat in the 2009 election cycle is attributed to many factors, I wondered then, and still do now, whether Barack Obama’s victory mobilized scared white voters into action. It is entirely possible that notorious Deep Southern racism caused many voters to say, Oh Lord, this could really happen! (Studies have shown the election of a black president increased membership among hate groups.) No matter whether anti-Obama fervor led voters or not, here’s what we got: the Republican Wave of 2010— the elections that gave us the utterly failed leadership we have now.
The contempt among white conservatives in Alabama for Barack Obama has been swift, immediate, and unrelenting. For eight years, Alabama’s leadership has sold an image of our president as the boogeyman, the barbarian at the gate, and the devil under every rock, all rolled into one. And that unceasing barrage of rhetoric has worked. One Friday night last fall, at my nephew’s football game, I was talking to a childhood friend on the sidelines when suddenly the conversation turned and he said casually but with emphasis, “I think Obama is a piece of shit, I hope you agree.” I told him that I didn’t, and he looked genuinely surprised. Sadly, the venom in Alabama that has been spent on Barack Obama has never been aimed at the state-level politicians whose removal seems more appropriate.
It was phenomena like these that prompted me to watch the 2014 documentary “Hating Obama”, which carries the viewer through about an hour of mish-mash opinion and populist commentary on this controversial president. While the film did a good job of presenting well-rounded perspectives on the 44th president, it failed to do something I wanted it to do: take a stand! “Hating Obama” begins with a question – Is President Obama hated for his policies or because he’s black? – and after we watch a multitude of testimonials from media personalities, from beauty-shop customers, from white people, from black, it ends with the same question . . .
Since we probably won’t get a real show of hands on who hates Barack Obama because he’s black, it makes more sense to see if he could be hated for his policies.
On job growth, President Obama has done reasonably well, according to the Washington Post’s assessment last January, and who could be mad at a president whose administration has steady job creation? According to a graphic in that Post article, of the last six presidents, three have done better than Obama – Carter, Reagan, and Clinton – and two have done (much) worse: both Bushes. Considering that George W. Bush’s administration basically destroyed the American economy and mired us deep into two expensive wars, Barack Obama’s administration has had a hard uphill climb.
How about another issue that affects everybody in one way or another: poverty. During Barack Obama’s administration, one NPR report from August 2015 shows, the poverty rate started at 14.3%, had risen at first, but then began falling; it was back down to 14.5% in 2013. (During George W. Bush’s administration, it rose three full percentage points.) Basically, President Obama stopped the bleeding. That NPR report is titled “Is It Obama’s Fault That Poverty Has Grown?” and the answer seems to be: sort of. It could be his fault— if we choose to totally ignore the roles of Congress, corporations, investors, business owners, and banks in the American economy.
Alright, another one that affects everyone: the deficit. Yes, President Obama’s administration has added massively to the national debt. It was around $10 trillion when he took office, and it now stands around $18 trillion. That’s $18,000,000,000,000.00— a dizzying number of zeros. Yet, it’s not as simple as saying that Obama “overspent” that much. Again, look what he inherited from George W. Bush: two wars and a shrunken tax base. This 2015 Washington Post story breaks it down reasonably well: yes, the debt has soared, but no, President Obama did not just whimsically decide to overspend. Again, this could be Obama’s fault if we ignore the roles played by everyone else.
Finally, let’s address the huge fear that has fueled anti-Obama sentiment in the Deep South: the dreaded “Obama is coming to take our guns.” Well, has he done that? In the seven-and-a-half years that Barack Obama has been president, he has not “taken away” people’s guns, even though many Americans still believe that he wants to. Here is an idea that is much more rational, from the Washington Post last January:
Confiscation is a much more radical gun-control policy than the bill to expand an existing background-check program for people who want to buy guns, which failed in Congress in 2013 due to opposition from gun-rights advocates. Even if Congress did support it, confiscation would be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right to keep handguns at home.
Guns are a way that those who fear Obama and his policies can feel like they have a measure of control over their own situation. Advocates for gun rights often claim that weapons will be needed so that citizens can fight back against the federal government, and sales of guns have skyrocketed since Obama took office.
That’s the Deep South that I know. I’ve heard more times than I can count that the guns will allow people to stand up against the tyranny of the federal government.
Certainly, there are other political issues – abortion, immigration, and student loan debt, which haven’t changed much during Obama’s presidency; or LGBT rights, which has changed dramatically – but those four are pretty broad in their relevance: jobs, poverty, the deficit, and guns. What it looks like to me, regarding the first three, is: President Obama stopped the crash that George W. Bush’s laissez faire policies caused, but he couldn’t single-handedly save the day. Unlike many Obama-haters, my memory actually extends back before 2008, so I recognize how W’s wars and anti-regulation economic policies have cost the country, even after he left office. About that fourth one, equating common-sense control on new gun purchases with a totalitarian confiscation scheme— that just smacks of paranoia, especially at this late date on his second term.
Earlier this month, NPR’s Steve Inskeep did a story on “The Obama Years,” and what he found tells a pretty convincing story about a good president. Unemployment was at 7.8% when Obama took office, and has fallen to 4.7%, while underemployment declined from 14.2% to 9.7%. Hourly wages have risen, but only slightly. Regarding health insurance, the uninsured rate “dropped by 5 percentage points between 2008 to 2014.” And though renewable energy still makes up only 13% of total US energy used, all forms have increased since 2007. Conservatives will be pleased to learn that rates of deporting illegal immigrants have been very high during the Obama administration. The issue of same-sex marriage was fully resolved during his presidency, and now there are no more questions about its legality (much to Roy Moore’s chagrin). A full third of the American people, including half of African Americans, say that Obama has improved race relations, while one-quarter say that he has made it worse; another 28% say that he has “tried but failed” to resolve racial problems in the country. (To those who blame Barack Obama for current racial tensions, thus ignoring the roles of every other person in America, I point you to Frank Bruni’s expertly stated rebuttal from mid-July.)
Whether you think Barack Obama’s election affected the chances of other black politicians, like Artur Davis, or not, to show just how much Alabama voters disdain Barack Obama and everything associated with him, e.g. Hillary Clinton, the state has swelled with support for Donald Trump. (In the state’s Republican primaries, Trump won every county race.) No candidate for president could be less Obama-like: where our current president is a slim, athletic man with a gracious smile, smooth baritone voice, and eloquent open-mindedness, Trump is a weasel-eyed name-caller with a spray tan and a ludicrous quaff, who slouches when he sits, meanders when he walks, and bears his teeth when he rants. But, in today’s political climate, he can be a bully, a thug, a Yankee, a scoundrel, a flip-flopper, whatever . . . because he’s male and white. (Well, sort of, he’s actually kind of yellowish-orange.)
While I recognize that everyone doesn’t have the affinity for Barack Obama that I do, I would say to his detractors: just thank your lucky stars that McCain or Romney wasn’t in the White House during these last years. Had George W. Bush handed the ball off to another Republican, I don’t know where we would be right now. I also think about how the last six years in Alabama could have been different if we had elected Artur Davis (or Ron Sparks) rather than Robert Bentley, who is now undergoing a laughable impeachment process. If we had had a Democratic governor to counterbalance that Republican super-majority . . . who knows?
Last night, Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention reminded me why I voted for him three times, twice in 2008 and again in 2012. Notwithstanding his wit, grace, or skill in oratory, he reminded listeners of two things to keep in mind always: first, that we – all of us – are integral part of American democracy, and second, that the process of democracy can be very difficult because it requires compromise— something that way too many people don’t want to do. Completely disregarding Barack Obama’s race, I truly believe that that’s why so many of his detractors hate him.