With Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as our modern examples, the magic possibilities of the second presidential term have long entranced the public. As the thinking goes, once the commander-in-chief gets a second term, his real political views will emerge—he will pursue his real agenda with a vengeance, not having to worry about public opinion polls or re-election.
That is the nectar that many African Americans are drinking now, dreaming about what the next four years might be like under President Obama if he is re-elected tomorrow. More specifically, in his second term will he shift his attention specifically to the needs of the black community?
Yes, the black community was devastated during Obama’s first four years in office—with soaring unemployment, record numbers of foreclosures, savings and investments wiped out, recent black college graduates unable to find work—but he was given an enormous pass. The hard times weren’t his doing. He was handed a raw deal by Bush. Our suffering is not his fault.
So the thinking goes, wait until his second term. That’s when the real Obama will emerge. That’s when he will do right by us.
Obama and his aides have long contended that if he lifts the country, he lifts African Americans in the process. When anyone in the country hurts, including black people, he also hurts. To a certain extent, the black community has been willing to accept this calculation. It makes sense.
But it’s not the same as feeling that the president is particularly concerned about the plight of black people, that he stays up at night thinking specifically about us. We have seen how far he will bend over backwards to appease individual constituencies, like Jews and Israel, if he feels that it’s in the nation’s best interest—or in the best interest of his re-election.
Sometimes we wish that we might get a bit of that special treatment—that he won’t be afraid of the right-wing reaction, the blustering anger of the Rush Limbaugh echo chamber, and he would just step up and tell the world that this week, he will dedicate himself to lifting us, reinvigorating us, saving us. Just us.
Yes, we know that he has done many things that ultimately will benefit black people, like healthcare reform, and education reform, and middle-class tax cuts, and ending two wars, and increasing benefits to military veterans. And he has opened offices in the White House dedicated to solving African American failures in school and has pushed many government agencies to do more to recruit and hire black-owned firms and individuals.
But sometimes it feels like he has to shovel us crumbs on the sly, behind his back while the white people aren’t looking. If he is going to truly step up and be the savior that we are all praying for, the behind-the-back crumbs will need to change in the second term. He will need to be unafraid about assisting his people, about devoting his considerable skill, intellect and the government’s resources to making sure that we are able to fully take advantage of everything this nation has to offer.
That is what we want from him. What we need from him.
There is also considerable danger in the second term that Obama must be watchful of. It is a hubris, a brazenness, that can lead to major missteps, bad decisions and disappointment—a lurking scandal that can bring it all crashing down, rendering the entire second term an exercise in ass-covering. For Reagan, it was deciding to sell arms to Iran to finance a renegade group of rebels in Nicaragua. The Iran contra scandal almost brought his entire administration crashing to the ground. For Clinton, it was bone-headed dalliances with an intern named Monica—which actually did bring his entire administration crashing to the ground.
So Obama has to be smart, humble, calculating. But he also needs to remember that in politics, the spoils of victory are supposed to first be dispensed to your most loyal, most important supporters. In your case, Mr. President, that would be us. African Americans. We will scratch and scrape tomorrow until our nails are bloody, our knees are skinned, making sure you get another four years.
And then, after that fabulous acceptance speech that will come, and another fanciful night of inauguration balls, it will be time to govern again. Time to pass out those spoils.
And you know where we live.