President Obama has consistently and deliberately tried to identify with Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. It’s not enough to let pundits and the public make these analogies, the president goes out of his way to announce his connection with these historical giants, no matter how strained the analogy. Who can blame him? He’s a president whose approval is under water, whose domestic agenda is stalled and whose foreign policy is in utter disarray. A failing president naturally wants to walk in others’ shoes.
But one senses that in his effort today to walk in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps, he falls so far short that he winds up highlighting the stature gap. MLK’s rhetoric lives on; other than unintelligible slogans (We are the change that we seek.) there are few if any memorable Obama lines in more than four years in office. MLK’s great achievement was to make civil rights an issue for whites and blacks; Obama manages to heighten racial animosity with every pronouncement (e.g. professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Trayvon Martin case).
Income inequality has continued to increase during his presidency. African American unemployment is at 12.6 percent, while Hispanic unemployment is more than 9 percent. We’ve seen record levels of poverty and food stamp dependency. He rarely if ever talks about the disintegration of the family, which has hit African Americans the hardest. (“Sixty-eight percent of black women who had given birth in the past year were unmarried, compared to 11 percent of Asian women, 43 percent of Hispanics and 26 percent of non-Hispanic whites.”) When it comes to education, the president infamously attempted to defund a school-voucher program in Washington, D.C., that has overwhelmingly benefited poor and minority kids.
President Obama’s record on race and economic progress for minorities is poor, if not embarrassing. He is the first African American president, a tribute to the progress the country has made in 50 years. But beyond that, what will his legacy be on race, poverty and opportunity?
Obama can go to the Lincoln Memorial. He can give another forgettable speech. But his contribution to racial healing and social justice is virtually nonexistent. At this rate, he’s headed toward the lower quartile of presidents. He’d do better to avoid comparison to Martin Luther King Jr. Actually, he’d do best to accomplish something positive in his last three years in office. It would be a shame to be known purely for getting elected.