Thursday, November 8, 2012

Our president

Last night a Facebook friend posted the question: "What's the first election you can remember?" This guy is in his twenties as are most of his friends, and the typical response went all the way back to Bush/Clinton, 1992. I didn't respond to his query because given my age compared to the age of the responders, I might as well have said I can remember Abraham Lincoln's last election. In truth the first election I remember, though not in great detail, was the 1964 election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. In other words, I've been around a long time and can remember a lot of presidential elections. Without a doubt, the one this year has been by far the most contentious election in my life.

When folks tell me that more hatred is directed toward Barack Obama than any other president, I try to downplay it, pointing to events such as the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton and the broad dislike, even hatred of George W. Bush from the Left. But Clinton and Bush earned most of the vitriol aimed in their direction all on their own. While some people find President Obama's politics, his methods, even his personality objectionable, I can't for the life of me figure out why he is hated so much by a such a large sector of society. At least I don't want to admit what I think might be the reason.

Walking past a public school on my way to work this morning, I passed several children who were having an animated conversation about last night's election. Clearly some of them had not stayed up past 10pm and were asking their friends: "Did Obama win Ohio?" Interest in such details of an election coming from kids who couldn't be more than ten or eleven was inspiring. I couldn't help being moved by the fact that those children were all African American. In fact during several encounters with black people today I noticed a definite sense of enthusiasm. The exuberance over the president's winning the State of Ohio and consequently the election was contagious. In the world in which I live, Barack Obama is very popular.

In other parts of the country, he obviously is not.

Clearly we live in a divided nation, and much of it has to do with race. It's a nasty issue that doesn't get  discussed much in polite society. A co-chair of the Romney campaign, former New Hampshire governor and Chief of Staff to the first President Bush, John Sununu touched on the subject briefly during a TV interview when he suggested that General Colin Powell's endorcement of Obama was racially motivated. He said: "I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him." In a more reasonable, non racially-charged society, that comment probably would have gone unnoticed. But it went viral here because between the lines, some people read Sununu as saying: "If it's OK for black people to support one of their own, why can't we white people do the same?"

After I encountered the enthusiastic kids this morning, the thought did cross my mind about how I'd feel if the tables were turned and I walked past a group of fist pumping, high fiving white folks, hollering and whooping it up because Mitt Romney won the election. I'd probably dismiss them as a bunch of yahoos.

In this year's presidential election, about 59 percent of the white vote went to Romney and the pundits are using that figure to comment how racially divided we are. But about 93 percent of the black vote went to Obama and there was hardly a peep. Is this a double standard?

In one word, no.

The ancestors of most African American people lived in this country long before the ancestors of most European Americans, including my own. Needless to say, most of them did not come here of their own free will. Black soldiers fought and died for this country in every war, often in disproportionate numbers. When they had the opportunity to, which was not until quite recently in some cases, African Americans could be counted on to consistently vote for white candidates. Black voters had been taken for granted for so long by white politicians that no one saw coming the tremendous ground swell of support for black candidates such as the late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago. Still it is a mistake to assume that African American people always vote as one block for candidates of their own race. The last mayoral election in Chicago was decided by the black vote in favor of Rahm Emanuel, despite the fact that on the ballot there was an extremely well known black candidate.

The fact is, in the past four years, the Republican Party has bent over backwards to alienate black voters:
  • The issue of requiring voter ids in some states harken back to the days of the poll tax where poor people, many of whom were black, were prohibited from voting simply because they could not afford to. The tremendous turnout in many of those states in this election where people stood for hours in line to cast a ballot, proved that people would not be denied the right to vote. 
  • The new campaign laws which eliminated spending limits, made the office of president available to the highest bidder. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats and Obama outplayed them at their own game by raising more money, an obscene amount, than any campaign in history.
  • While the office of president should command the highest respect, opponents of Barack Obama have gone to tremendous lengths to disrespect both the man and the office. Instead of doing their jobs and governing, some Republicans in Congress openly vowed at the outset of his presidency that their number one goal was to make Obama a one term president. From ridiculous demands of proof of citizenship, to a governor pointing her finger in his face, to a congressman calling him a liar during a speech, to the unbelievable intransigence in Congress over every bit of legislative minutiae, Republicans have shown over and over again that they will stop at nothing in order to gain control of the government. 
In short, every plausible reason for black folks (and folks of many other shades including white), to vote for Mitt Romney, was overshadowed by the enormous baggage of poor choices made by the candidate and his party. Instead of venting their anger at the results of this past election, Republicans need only look in the mirror.

It's not going to get any better for the GOP. This country is moving in a new direction demographically, and being the white people's party is simply not going to cut it anymore. As someone who has voted "Democrat" for most of his life, you might think I'd be thrilled at the prospect of the demise of the Republican Party. I'm not. As an American I believe deeply in the two party system, in a meaningful rational dialog, and being forced to make a choice between two credible candidates come election time.

In this election I didn't feel there was a choice. Four years ago I knew President Obama was in for a rough ride and given the state of the economy, I was skeptical about his prospects of being re-elected in 2012. Yet I believe he's done a reasonably good job in office, attempting at least to fulfill the campaign promises he made four years ago. My most profound experience of the effects of his presidency came this summer while driving up to Wisconsin with my family. As we passed the massive Chrysler plant in Belvedere, Illinois, I noticed the employee parking lot was filled with cars, far more of them than I had seen in years. As my wife pointed out, had it not been for this administration, that lot, and hundreds like it around the country today would be empty.

That said, we're still in deep financial trouble and I'm not entirely convinced that the policies of this administration will lead us out of the morass. I would have desperately liked to have been challenged by a candidate from the other side who presented a clear, consistent alternative vision for the future of this country. Unfortunately Governor Romney did not. His statements during the campaign were all over the place, made more out of convenience rather than conviction. The only conviction of the governor's I could detect, was his desire to be president. Perhaps the delicate balance of trying to please a very disparate constituency was too much for him, but in my opinion, the governor was simply not a credible candidate.

Obviously a lot of people disagree, most of them belonging to the same race and gender as me. Unemployment, the deficit, the debt, the bad economy and a plethora of other issues are all legitimate concerns and most of the people who voted for Governor Romney believed his ideas to address those issues were better than Obama's.

Some people however, I have no idea how many, don't feel that Barack Obama truly represents them and voted for Romney simply because of the color of his skin. I know this to be true because I personally know some of them. Unsavory as it may be, that is their right.

All I can say is this: I'm glad the election is over.

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