In November 2008, Time featured an image of Barack Obama wearing a fedora at a jaunty angle with a long cigarette holder perched upon his lips. It was an unmistakable recasting of the iconic image of Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the surface, the reasons for the comparison seemed obvious. Taking office amid a cratering economy and wars raging in two countries, the new president was confronted by a set of challenges unseen since the Great Depression. But to keen observers there was another, far more subtle comparison to be made between the 44th president and the 32nd one.
Many of us never consider the fact that the United States was led through the greatest crisis of the 20th century by a man confined to a wheelchair. And while far from a perfect comparison, the histories of race and disability share overlapping themes.
Roosevelt’s heroic accomplishments, and his standing as the greatest president of the 20th century, did not automatically usher in a society that radically rethought its views of disability. Indeed, his condition was literally cloaked and, to the greatest extent possible, kept from public knowledge.
The president’s black critics would argue that race has often functioned similarly in this administration, as a third-rail and a topic best left avoided. (Recall how Obama’s straightforward and sensible comments about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates generated a racial storm cloud that the famous “beer summit” only partly diffused.)
What this has left us with is not a post-racial America, just as Roosevelt’s time in office did not leave us with a post-disability America. What it has left us with is an America that is just as actively – though perhaps more complexly – grappling with what race means in our country.
All this has vast implications not only for Obama but also for black leadership in general. We should not forget that President Obama rose to prominence on the strength of a 2004 convention speech in which he papered over the divisions – racial, religious, geographic – that have often defined us. Obama was inducted into a class of politicians including D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, Alabama congressman Artur Davis and Tennessee representative Harold Ford, all of whom appeared to represent a new, “coincidentally black” group of leaders.
But that model appears to be either unworkable or at best seriously flawed. Responding in 2009 to demands from some in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that he target black communities with stimulus dollars, the president remarked that he could not have one agenda for America and a separate one for black America. The president’s even-handedness exacerbated tensions with the CBC that dated back to the 2008 primaries. When the CBC began organizing job fairs in black communities in 2011, it was a response to dire conditions among their constituents – but it was also a public rebuke of a president who some saw as unwilling or unable to address the needs of a community.