Construction workers sat to my right and discussed their experiences while casting a ballot that morning. To my left, a young man explained to a family member why he refused to vote for Romney.
But my conversation with the two men working behind the counter was the most telling. I asked them both who their favorite president was. And though they both were excited about the potential of President Obama getting re-elected, neither chose 44.
“For real, Tricky Dick was my man, though," said the cook, 53, who didn’t want to give his name, referring to Richard Nixon. "Any [negro] could get a job when that [expletive] was in office."
The other, a waiter who also didn’t want to give his name, said he was "in his twenties," added that he was partial to Bill Clinton. "I just like that dude," he reasoned.
No matter his race, Obama still has some work to do before he's considered a great president for some people.
Man, it was all good just a term ago.
So, what can Obama do to solidify his legacy? Some black folks are asking for him to pay back the support he was given by the community in his second four years. To me, that line of thinking doesn't make sense. The president doesn't owe anything more to black people than the rest of this country does.
One man, one term, two terms — or perhaps a lifetime — can't reverse what generations of the prison industrial complex, inadequate education systems and health-care policies that ranged from callous to dangerous have done to the black community.
So stop asking.
Lorenzo Morris, a professor of political science at Howard University, echoed a theme from President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address when I asked him how he thought black people could get “our” causes more aptly addressed.
“Obama can only 'help black people' with issues they bring to his attention,” Morris said in an interview. “The disorganization of the progressive community, and blacks in particular, in the current presidential term means that black interests have been very poorly articulated, if at all. In contrast, gay issues, a range of Latino concerns, banking interests, Israeli issues, oil trade issues... have been forcefully and pointedly expressed.
“On concerns of special interest to African Americans, like criminal justice, public school equity, financial aid and mortgage support, there have been weak proposals,”Morris added.
That is to say: Ask not what you president can do for you, but consider what you can do to help your president help you.
Avis A. Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council for Negro Women, agrees that the effort need be more strategic if it's to be successful.
“I believe in a second term the president will be more adept at utilizing both his executive powers as well as the bully pulpit to advance the needs of African Americans,” she said. “Yet, in many instances, he will still need the political cover, so to speak, to do so. That means African Americans have to become more adept at the policy process beyond the stage of protest politics.
“Yes, protests remain important, but we also must be effective in placing pressure on our Congressional representatives so as to create a pathway for the president to do what needs to be done,” Jones-DeWeever added. “A president is a president. He is not a king. He is not a dictator.”
Obama's election has, in a certain way, forced us all to work harder, individually. Expectations have been raised for a lot of politicians at lower levels of government. Look at the sad tale of Jesse Jackson, Jr., whose health has crumbled under the pressure. Like it or not, the truth about getting someone who self-identifies as one of your own in the highest office is that, paradoxically, we have to produce as a society to prove he deserves to be there.
Yes, it's a Catch-22. Achieve too much success and nothing less is acceptable. Don't work hard and people presume you're asking for a handout. So, not only is looking for some kind of special treatment as a group unnecessary, it's counterproductive.
But if my generation of thirty-somethings isn't going to grin and bear the realities of America while trying to change it for the better, who will? With a second term, Obama has given many more of us a seat at the proverbial table to change things on levels we have the ability to control ourselves. It's not ideal, but it's definitely progress from the days of far more overt racism that our forefathers and family members dealt with.
“The continuing relevance of racism in this society must be acknowledged and addressed. If not through policy, than by individual initiatives in communities across this nation,” Jones De-Weever said. “As an increasingly diverse nation within a global economy, the future competitiveness of America necessitates that we no longer ignore the full breadth of the human capital this nation has to offer. Perhaps this is the message Obama should champion in a second term.”
Or perhaps this is the message that we should all be championing in life overall, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
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