Monday, Barack Obama took the ceremonial presidential oath of office for the second and final time. The fanfare was again deafening. The expectations for his second term again outsized. Black voters who supported President Obama by more than a 9 to 1 margin in 2008 and 2012 can now rest, assured that he will have plenty of time to cement his legacy.
But fast forward to four years from now. Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath to the 45th American president. At
that moment, our first black president will officially become our first black former president. Who will be the second? Deval Patrick? Cory Booker? A newly ascendant member of the Congressional Black Caucus? Who’s got next? And more important, how long will it take?
While black voters have proven that we can lead a diverse and powerful coalition to elect our preferred candidate, someone who actually looks like us, we continue to underperform in state, local, and midterm elections. This kind of inattention could mean another lifetime before we see a black face in the oval office again.
Despite President Obama’s meteoric rise, there are still very few African Americans who possess the kind of national profile or financial backing to entertain presidential aspirations. Of the last ten presidents, four were governors, four were vice presidents, and three, including Obama, had served in the Senate. Before becoming president, all but George H.W. Bush demonstrated that they could win a state-wide election. Meanwhile, there have been only two black governors in our nation’s history and just three elected black senators since reconstruction.
History suggests that if black voters simply wait for the next political superstar to rise out of obscurity, we will be twiddling our thumbs for a very long time. A perfect political storm elected Obama in 2008; George W. Bush was wildly unpopular and Obama’s anti-Iraq war stance distinguished him from other Democrats during the party’s primary. Finally, without Hillary Clinton’s dogged primary campaign which swelled the ranks of registered Democrats in a number of contested states, Obama might not have won North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Colorado, or Virginia in the general election.
And let’s not forget a doddering and caustic John McCain, a perfect foil to Obama’s youthful vitality and message of hope.
Presidents rarely come out of nowhere like Obama appeared to do. Candidates who are not backed by tremendous power and money cannot persevere for extended lengths of time politically. They must see their moment and swiftly amass the resources to seize it. Though Obama did just that, his path to the White House can’t easily be replicated. To even consider a second black president, we have to develop the kind of institutions and tools that incubate black political talent. We have to be intentional.
How? Blacks can’t expect to compete for the White House every four years. At 12 percent of the voting population, we simply don’t have the numbers. So for starters, we don’t wait around for the next Michael Jordan to spring from the ether. We build a pipeline. The Congressional Black Caucus Institute is dedicated to training the next generation of political leaders and educating voters about political engagement. We need to support CBCI and organizations like it – the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and others – to ensure that they remain faithful to their missions and prepare our young leaders for public service at every level.
Secondly, we vote in every election that impacts the places where we live and work. We change the culture that says the county coroner race isn’t sexy enough for us to turn out. Tomorrow’s national leaders are cutting their teeth in state legislatures, city counsels, and county commissions. If our young people don’t get a foothold in these places, we will continue to hear that tired refrain: “we searched but found no qualified candidates.”
Third, we expand. We examine our reliance on majority black districts and acknowledge their continuing value. But we also nurture talent that can compete where the demographics aren’t so friendly. Remember, all politics are local. But black politicians with national aspirations have the added burden of having to transcend the local, i.e., racial.
Fourth. Challenge the old model that only ex-governors need apply. We broaden the discussion of qualified candidates to include cabinet members, successful entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates. Executive experience comes in many forms.
Fifth. Continue to build common cause with progressive whites, women, Asians, Latinos, advocates for gay and lesbian rights, and recent immigrants. Support candidates from these groups. This is only proper. We give, we get. A Latino president appoints a black secretary of defense who, as a result, is inserted into the national conversation.
If we accept that President Obama was the culmination of decades of struggle and a fair bit of luck, then we must also understand that the next Barack Obama will only result from a deliberate strategy to increase civic engagement, create a new black political class, and yes, catch a little luck in the process.
The kind of luck that happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Thomas Reed is an attorney who specializes in civil rights, media and communications law. He resides in Centreville, Virginia.
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