Obama’s Curious Cautiousness
He is a great politician, but he is not an activist.
Wednesday morning on Peter Hamby’s Snapchat show, “Good Luck America,” Obama said this:
“If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
It was not the first time Obama had taken aim at these young activists. Last year he also took a swipe at wokeness and “call-out culture,” saying, among other things: “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
That speech got him an amen from Ann Coulter, who tweeted: “Good for Obama. (Not sarcastic!)”
These chastisements by Obama delineate the difference between the politician and the activist.
The politician may be popular, but the activist will rarely be. The politician can unify, but the activist often divides. The politician seeks to unify people around a set of beliefs. The activist seeks to right a wrong that has been held up by a set of beliefs. In short, the politician navigates the system, while the activist defies it.
The politician builds a coalition by using middling philosophy and policies that appeal to the most and offend the fewest. The activist is driven more by purpose, morality and righteousness.
There is a reason most of our greatest activists in America never became politicians: They would have had to compromise too much of themselves and their causes.
Of course, as a political matter, Obama is right in a way. He is looking at the path to legislative and public opinion success. To take that path, the power structure can’t be so much confronted as coaxed. Those who do not recognize your full humanity must be convinced rather than condemned.
But that all feels like cowardice and accommodation to the activists. They are right, after all. Policing needs to be restructured in this country. Part of the reason so many unarmed Black people are killed at the hands of the police is that policing itself has become sick and corrupt; it has become bloated and impervious to prosecution.
I believe that Obama recognizes this, too, to some degree. But to the politician, baby steps are still progress. Winning the hearts and minds of the populace in that tradecraft, it is the way — the only way — they believe that progress is made.
But it is also true that it is often the presence of an extremist wing — I say extremist here only because that is the way the opposition sees strident activism — that makes successes of the moderate position possible.
Part of the reason the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. could be so successful was the existence of the more radical — and less widely acceptable — Malcolm X.
Booker T. Washington was elevated because he was willing to forgo political power at a time when Black people outnumbered white people in some Southern states and were near a majority in others. The idea of Black political power and possibly even Black dominance had sent shock waves through the white South and animated white terror in the region.
This moment needs the radical young activists. It needs them to push far and hard. It needs them to confront the power structure, to stare it down, to demand its dismantling.
Obama is a good man and a great politician. History will always record him as such. But he is not an activist. He is not the person who can or will push for the immediate alleviation of oppression. That is just not who he is or how his power was derived. He is above all else a practical, left-of-center moderate.
His presence as president was his greatest symbol of change: a smart, competent Black man, devoid of personal scandal, who brought class and professionalism to the White House. He changed the idea of what was possible to America — including its children — and enshrined Black excellence at the highest level of government as just another normal thing.
That simple act, him doing his job well, was monumental in the quest for racial progress.
But none of that negates the legitimate cries of the activist that much more must be done, that Obama altered a racial image, for the better, but wasn’t able to alter the system of oppression. That was always too much of an expectation. No one can correct 400 years in eight.
But in their approach, the activists are right. I have no problem with “Defund the police.” I know that it means to reallocate funding so that social services and policing are properly weighted. If people are offended and “lost” because of that, they were actually lost before the phrase was uttered.“