Some Black Observers Urge Tough Scrutiny of Obama

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

Jeff Johnson knows how to make his audiences squirm. The young, black radio and TV political commentator waits for the discussion to turn to the topic being talked about ceaselessly, incessantly, ad nauseam: the meaning of the barrier-breaking election of Barack Obama.

Then, in his laid-back style, he says, "The real issue for me is that history is not enough." That's when the mood becomes tense.

"Black folks, in particular, get irritated," says Johnson, who travels the lecture circuit, hosts a half-hour show on Black Entertainment Television and has a weekly spot for social criticism on a radio program popular with black listeners. Get past "Obama the personality" and see "Obama the president," he says. "Otherwise all you're being is a political-celebrity groupie instead of a citizen. . . . It starts with acknowledging he's my president, and not my homie."

As the nation's first black president settles into the office, a division is deepening between two groups of African Americans: those who want to continue to praise Obama and his historic ascendancy, and those who want to examine him more critically now that the election is over.

Johnson is one of a growing number of black academics, commentators and authors determined to press Obama on issues such as the elimination of racial profiling and the double-digit unemployment rate among blacks.

But doing so has put them at odds with others in the black community. Love for the Obamas is thick among African Americans -- 91 percent of whom view the president favorably, compared with 59 percent of the total population, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month -- and as a result, the African American punditry finds itself navigating new ground.

They are learning to negotiate what talk show host and author Tavis Smiley calls an "unfamiliar dance." If you push too forcefully, he says he has learned, you risk your credibility in the community.

That's what happened to Smiley last year, when he was the one in the commentator's chair that Jeff Johnson now sits in on Tom Joyner's syndicated morning radio program. During the heated Democratic primary, Smiley questioned Obama's decision not to attend his annual State of the Black Union conference and said he hoped Obama would make it through the campaign "with his soul intact."

The push-back was "brutal," Smiley recalls. Angry listeners called him a "sellout," an "Obama hater" and "Uncle Tom." Surprised and hurt, Smiley left Joyner's show but now uses the rough patch to make the case for a new book he co-wrote, "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."

The book, Smiley's third about issues facing black Americans, has a picture of Obama on the cover and outlines the president's promises during the campaign to elevate the status of his fellow African Americans. Smiley wants readers to use the book as a tool to measure the new administration.

"If President Obama succeeds, there is the chance that we will have another person of color as president. If he succeeds, there is the chance that we will at some point have a woman as president. But if he fails . . . it may be another 400 years before we get another African American president," Smiley says, arguing that tough questions will make Obama a better leader.

"I know what I'm up against," he continues, because he is still accused of "casting aspersion on Barack Obama or having some issue with Barack Obama."

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