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By Mark Naison | with thanks to NewBlackMan


Saturday, December 17, 2011.


Like many people on the Left, I have become disillusioned with the Obama Presidency.  As one of those people who devoted huge amounts of time, money and energy to getting Obama elected, and who cried on election night when his victory was assured, I found myself hoping against hope that there was some redemptive quality to his leadership amidst expansion of foreign wars, attacks on public school teachers, bailouts of banks unaccompanied by serious controls, and a host of other policies that appeared to contradict everything he stood for during his campaign.


Although my heart wasn’t in it, I tried to justify his policies as the result of a powerful congressional opposition that refused to support policies that brought the full power of the federal government behind job creation and income policies designed to ease the pain of the nation’s  struggling working class and middle class, along with those long trapped in poverty.


But recently, I have started to think that the “real” Barack Obama is not the community organizer pictured in Dreams from My Father or the fierce defender of the middle class that emerged on the campaign trail, but a cynical, ambitious, politician who loves spending time with the rich and the powerful and who has tied his administration’s and his own future to gaining their support.


The straw that broke the camel’s back, after many disappointments, was the image of the President regaling a $2,500 a plate dinner in San Francisco while Occupy Oakland was being attacked by an army of police using tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and bulldozers.  The Obama of Dreams from My Fatherwould have rushed across the Bay to stand with the Occupiers, but this Obama didn’t so much as give the protesters a second thought. 


The President was totally relaxed and in his element with the hedge fund and dot com executives, and media moguls, supporting his campaign. THEY, not the Occupiers, were now his real constituency. Not only were they the ones funding his presidential campaign, they were the ones who were going to be employing him after he left the Presidency, assuring that he, and his family would be part of the 1 Percent for the foreseeable future.


As a young man, who like the President, grew up in a lower middle class family and went to an Ivy League college and graduate school, I can understand the lure of great wealth and power to someone who grew up with neither.  When you are a talented person from a family of modest means, it can be very heady to be courted by and praised by some of the nation’s smartest, wealthiest and most powerful people.   And if you are so talented and charismatic that these people decide to groom you to become one of them, it can definitely persuade you to make compromises that end up affecting your conscience and your social consciousness.


For very personal reasons, I never enjoyed hanging out in the clubs and restaurants and vacation houses of the wealthy as much as the times I spent in neighborhood ball fields, schoolyards, and community centers interacting with working class and middle class people. I keep my feet in both worlds but I consider “the hood” to be my moral compass, the place where I have to go to find out if my life’s mission has any real traction, any real meaning.


But I fear the President is different.  The people who come to the White House, whether the professional basketball players who show up at his birthday parties, the talented musicians who come to entertain, or the CEO’s and political kingmakers who come to discuss policy, are always a cross session of the most successful people in whatever field they are in. The President never tries to bring in ordinary people to talk to him privately and find out what is going on in their workplaces and neighborhoods. Those are not the people he trust, those are not the people he is comfortable with; those are not the people he wants to spend time with when he leaves the Presidency.


A real cue to the President’s character came when he decided to host an Education Summit. To this event, he invited CEO’s of the nation’s largest corporations, and executives in some of the nation’s wealthiest foundations, but not one teacher.   This is the real Barack Obama—someone who has left the world he grew up in, and the communities in Chicago he organized in, and who craves the company and advice of people, like himself, who have accomplished great things or accumulated great wealth.


In some ways, he is the perfect President for a country where ambition is honored above loyalty, generosity, and concern for those who have fallen in hard times and where we honor those who have overcome great obstacles to “rise to the top.”


But whether he is the right President to lead us through the worst economic crisis in seventy years and stand up for all the people who have lost jobs and homes and hope is another matter entirely.




Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of two books, Communists in Harlem During the Depression and White Boy: A Memoir. Naison is also co-director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Research from the BAAHP will be published in a forthcoming collection of oral histories Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life From the 1930’s to the 1960’s.



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