With President Obama now headed for a second term in the White House—after laying the campaign of GOP opponent Mitt Romney to waste —his critics in the black community are likely to stick around. And they will likely have more traction the second time around if they play their cards right, stick to the issues, and hold Obama’s feet to the fire.
Former Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, a supporter-turned-critic of the president, had some harsh words for the commander-in-chief of late when he called Obama a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” West and Tavis Smiley, who launched a nationwide poverty tour, are among the more vocal critics of the president. Surely some black voices that have been sympathetic to their critique held their tongues because they did not want to negatively impact Obama’s reelection chances.
But now that the election is over, these critics will likely feel emboldened to challenge President Obama to speak more directly to issues of concern to the African-American community. There are a few reasons for this.
First, black voters sealed the deal for Obama in 2012, as they did in 2008. And now is the time for them to cash in their chips. The most ardent supporters of the president at over 95 percent, the African-American electorate joined a majority of Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, Catholics, Muslim-Americans, Jewish-Americans, young people and others to form a strong progressive coalition that propelled Obama to victory.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was an empty suit to many, but a dangerous one. His party ran on an anti-government, anti-working people and anti-woman agenda that black people could not swallow. This election cycle, the tea-party-infused Republicans had little use for black voters, except when it came to race baiting them for political gain, or suppressing their votes.
Black voters took voter ID and other voter suppression measures to heart. They responded to naked attempts to deny them the franchise by fighting back at the ballot box. There was historic black turnout in Ohio, and strong voter participation in other battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia. African-Americans knew what was at stake, and they did not stand in line for hours on end for naught. For his part, addressing reports of long lines at the polls, Obama responded, “by the way, we have to fix that.”
Second, President Obama won re-election with over 50 percent of the vote, and with that a mandate for a second term. The stakes are high, as are the expectations, given that the president made them so. In contrast to the moderate and conciliatory tone and symbolic nature of his 2008 run, Obama’s 2012 run was more populist, with tax increases for the wealthiest Americans as his central theme.
As a second term president with nothing to lose, yet a need to solidify his legacy, Obama should feel emboldened to accomplish big things. Jobs and the economy are likely to be his top priorities.
In his first term, the president received legitimate criticism for failing to address black unemployment and poverty, and for conceding too much to his GOP adversaries at the negotiating table on health care reform. Political pressure from such critics is necessary to keep a president honest, and to provide cover for policies that people want. And the constructive criticism they provide should be accompanied by an agenda that will benefit the black community. In his first four years, Obama would have benefited from more of this type of criticism.
On the other hand, some of the critique provided by West, Smiley and others was itself criticized for its personal nature, and a focus on who was not invited to the White House. This cheapened any valid points they may have offered regarding the president.
But in 2012, Obama’s black critics will demand more, in the same way they grew frustrated over his inaction on black unemployment. If the president pursues a fiscal austerity route and appeases Republicans with a $4 trillion grand bargain that slashes social welfare spending and balances the budget on the backs of the poor, then his critics will really come out in full force — and rightly so.
If he wants to keep his critics at bay, then President Obama needs to act as if he won the election and push the agenda his base voted for. Critics will be there to apply pressure in a second term where Obama is unencumbered by the burdens of re-election. But in order to be taken seriously, these critics must stick to policy points and resist the temptation to make it personal.