One wishes that after seven-plus years of demoralizing, ugly, incompetent and divisive leadership, there would be at long last something one might find in Barack Obama that an average American could make peace with.
But in one of the latter speeches of his presidential tenure, a commencement address at historically black Howard University over the weekend, Obama showed himself incapable either of uniting the country he’s misgoverned since January of 2009 or even giving its citizens reasons to believe they can improve their own stations.
According to Obama’s Howard speech things are terrific — both in comparison to when he took office and also in comparison to the time of a far more successful president than he.
Obama opened the speech by warning that he was going to give what he called a “hot take,” and then suggested that the country is in every way better than it was “when I was in college,” and picked 1983, the year Ronald Reagan’s presidency took off as well as the year Obama graduated from Columbia, as his benchmark.
“But think about it,” he said. “I graduated in 1983. New York City, America’s largest city, where I lived at the time, had endured a decade marked by crime and deterioration and near bankruptcy. And many cities were in similar shape. Our nation had gone through years of economic stagnation, the stranglehold of foreign oil, a recession where unemployment nearly scraped 11 percent. The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by foreign competition. And don’t even get me started on the clothes and the hairstyles. I’ve tried to eliminate all photos of me from this period. I thought I looked good. I was wrong.”
Let’s remember that in 1983 the United States of America roared out of the deep recession that began in the Carter years and posted an economic growth figure — 7 percent — that Obama could never dream of. That year signaled the beginning of the end of America’s Cold War retreat vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, a turnaround which just six years later culminated in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The wave of patriotism and positive national morale that economic growth touched off made America an exceedingly enjoyable place to live — perhaps the President doesn’t remember that period fondly, but most Americans alive at the time have a different view.
He’s right about New York City, of course, which had been run into the ground by leftist Democrats who governed exactly like he does.
But Obama launched into a litany of items that have improved since then — that poverty and crime rates have decreased, that there are more people with college degrees, that “America’s cities have undergone a renaissance,” that women in the workforce have increased in number and in income, and so forth. None of those improvements have particularly accelerated during Obama’s tenure, of course, and he didn’t bother giving credit to any of the leaders who drove them.
That got even worse when he noted the improvements since 1983 on the world stage – “a wall came down in Berlin.” Was it a hurricane that knocked down that wall? Was it a meteor? Or did people who came before Obama do noteworthy and noble things to produce its removal?
But what was most pernicious about the speech was Obama’s special message to the black community as personified by his Howard University audience.
After noting that fewer barriers to black achievement exist today than ever before, without noting when he graduated from college it would have been inconceivable to most that he would be electable to his current office, he took pains to insure his audience carried with them the past grievances of African Americans into the future. “We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement,” he said. “We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.”
And then the money quote of the entire speech, the one which dragged the baggage of his infamous “you didn’t build that” line of 2012 that insulted American entrepreneurs and achievers from Maine to Hawaii…
“And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. That’s a pet peeve of mine: People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.”
Perhaps it’s instructive that Obama, who more than any president this country has ever had would be expected to evangelize the opportunity for personal achievement against the odds, is so distinctly resistant to the concept of individual agency. Does he insist on luck and privilege as the explanation for his own success?
It’s hard to say he’d speak differently if that’s his honest assessment.
There’s an old joke about Obama (in fairness, it long predates him in American politics) that he’s a “post turtle” – namely, a turtle resting atop a fence post. The joke goes that the turtle “didn’t get up there by himself, he doesn’t belong there, he can’t get anything done while he’s up there and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down.”
Maybe Obama has heard it. Maybe he agrees with it. Maybe he thinks it was just luck, or the agency of others, which led to his rapid rise from the Illinois state senate to the White House. And maybe he knows that for all the “fundamental transformation” he’s put America through in his time, his words at Howard about the country’s improvement over his tenure are empty.
But you would think someone with his story of advancement might find in it some positive message to impart to kids just coming out of college. You’d think it would be obvious that the first black president would use his story to encourage and inspire a class of Howard graduates that there is nothing they can’t do, and that society needs their individual achievements to continue the improvement he says America has made since 1983.
Instead, he gave them a redux of the “you didn’t build that” speech. And in doing so, he proved the joke. Obama really is a post turtle. And like that post turtle, he’s incapable of real accomplishment in his current position.