Much was made about the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency and what it would mean for black politics and black politicians nationwide. Obama's success, based partly on the lack of conversation about his race during the campaign, seemed to herald the end of the race-inflected politics of civil rights era African-American politicians, and usher in a new brand of black politician who could ride Obama's "post-racial" coattails.
Six years into the Obama presidency, there isn't that bumper crop of promising Obama-style black politicians -- or anything close.
There are only two sitting black U.S. Senators: Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina and Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey. Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is running for governor and seems poised to swap places with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick as the nation's only black Governor. (Patrick is limited to two terms.) California Attorney General Kamala Harris will likely win her re-election bid.
But that is something close to a complete list of prominent black politicians of Obama's generation (or younger) currently in high-ranking office. And, those few successes don't overshadow the starker reality of the many political flame-outs of the Obama generation.
Take Artur Davis. He bet that Alabama, a state known for some of the most violent civil rights era crime, was ready for a black nominee for the governor's race in 2010. But Davis never even made it out of the Democratic primary, misreading the black electorate most of all. (He actually lost black voters to Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who is white.) Davis introduced Obama at the Democratic National Committee in 2008, by 2012 his journey to nowhere had changed so abruptly that he was a featured speaker at the Republican National Committee's convention.
Davis, a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was chronicled along with a number of other would-be stars in Gwen Ifill's excellent book, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." His promise and now squandered potential is perhaps the most glaring example of the hope of expanded horizons and the reality of glass ceilings faced by Obama's contemporaries and those thought to be coming in his wake. But, he's hardly the only one.
There was Kendrick Meek (lost a U.S. Senate race in Florida). Jesse Jackson Jr. (now in federal prison in Alabama). Adrian Fenty (lost a re-election bid in 2010). And Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's political career likely dead-ends soon, dogged by the taint of inner city politics and yet another demonstration that it's hard to go from representing an urban (black) district or city, to statewide office, at least for black politicians. (A white politician, Martin O'Malley, did so without hiccup when he went from mayor of Baltimore to governor of Maryland in 2006.)
But the short political runs of the Obama generation of black politicians augurs challenges for those just now entering the pipeline and looking at a bigger stage. People like Booker and to a lesser extent Harris must deal not only with a pervasive anxiety around race but also judgments of how Obama has done as the first black president.
The latter phenomenon might be called the "anxiety of influence," to borrow from Harold Bloom, whereby black politicians who wish to succeed Obama will necessarily have to deal with his legacy and sui generis achievement. Davis, in Alabama, thought he could go against Obama on health care. Didn't work. Mia Love, a black Republican running for Congress in Utah, rejected any Obama comparisons. Didn't work. Dr. Ben Carson's ascension to the national spotlight had everything to do with essentially telling Obama off at a prayer breakfast. Both benefit from the search for a GOP Obama, but must necessarily be his opposite in the strongest ways. For his part, Booker likes to joke that he isn't Obama. But he is dogged by those comparisons -- dubbed a possible Obama heir by some and as Obama without the edge by others.
Then there is the racial anxiety that Obama's candidacies both exposed and exacerbated. Obama's election was billed as a racial balm, a sort of absolution from the nation's sin of slavery. It has turned out to be just the opposite, highlighting racial stratification and discontent. It's why few people put Patrick on the list for 2016, under the assumption America is just not ready for another black president, four years after re-electing its first one. Impressions of race relations reflect that sense of anxiety and promise unfulfilled. From 2007 to 2009, 76 percent of blacks said that whites and blacks were getting along pretty well. Now, it's at 64 percent.
In 2008, Obama and his aides purposefully set him up as outside the mainstream of black -- and white -- politicians of his era. He was a man apart then and now. And that means that there is no next Barack Obama. Not anytime soon at least.