Posted on July 20, 2013 by Ruth O’Brien
In President Obama’s Remarks on Trayvon Martin, he makes it personal. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
But why does he add “35 years ago”? Why not say it more boldly — this could be him now, if he were 17 years old today? Okay, I know he’s not 17, and this is why he spoke of 35 years ago. But by referencing the years, this timeline makes his comment misleading — conceding progress, when Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal show we do not live in a postracial society. If Obama were 17 today, this could have been him now, since surely Obama went out to the local convenience store to purchase Skittles and iced tea, as a way to get out of the house when he was that age?
Martin’s neighborhood is little different demographically from Obama’s neighborhood in Hawaii, where he was living at 17. If Obama wants to get personal, Obama has to get personal in a way that speaks with authenticity to the civil-rights community. He must speak with conviction.
To exhibit leadership, Obama needs to do what all leaders do — walk toward the fire, or take sides in our polarized nation. He needs to eschew his role as statesman.
Maybe Obama’s afraid to test being personal, since this raises the bigger question — is anyone listening anyway? When Obama was running for president, or when he was in his first term, personal comparisons like this provoked outrage from the Right. But now that Obama’s second term has been pronounced D.O.A. by middle-of-the-road members of the established media, like David Gergen, is anyone listening to anything, let alone calling him a leader?
Gergen is right. With the annual August congressional recess looming, let’s face it, Obama has little chance now of passing immigration reform. In his second presidency, Obama has tried and failed to pass immigration reform and gun-control reform, in addition to having put himself in a rear-guard battle about the politics of sequestration.
None of it passed. He failed as a second-term legislative leader. Mind you, Obama is in line with all second-term presidents since World War Two. Ronald Reagan’s only success — the immigration reform of 1986 — turned out to help the Democrats more than the Republicans.
And let’s not forget that when Obama passed historic legislation in his first term, like health care, he didn’t get leadership credit for that — even from the Left.
And while Obama did succeed in passing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, no one seemed to pay attention long enough to call it a victory. So, I agree — his presidency, at least the legislative leadership aspect of it, is over. No more historic legislation.
So we’re now facing a three-year run for the presidency. And the president’s best bet is to get very personal and turn the polarized nation into outright partisanship, rejuvenating his cosmopolitan rainbow coalition as he helps Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton represents the Democrats’ best chance for 2016 (and women’s issues, in combination with the new and old civil-rights issues that unite Obama’s rainbow coalition). But Obama can play a role, though it’s a role he’s been loath to exhibit, and that’s as a party leader who at the very least wants to protect and promote his own legacy. There’s no better way to protect his legacy than to help Hillary.