August 24, 2011
President Obama’s inability to be decisive and inept leadership stem not from his lack of executive experience, but from his grounding in a specific political culture, the one he sought out in Chicago. His entry and indoctrination into the political culture of black leadership there have not prepared him for a positive role as chief executive officer.
Since the late 1800s black churches in Chicago have been the center of black politics [i]. Early in the 1930s the “Black Machine” of Chicago was established as a subgroup of the white political machine [ii]. Because of the prominence of Mayor Daley I in the national political scene, Chicago’s ability to create political leaders has meant that the Windy City became a gateway to national politics for black leaders [iii]. This is why Jesse Jackson moved to Chicago. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, educated in the Northeast, went to Chicago to begin his political career.
For 22 years he attended the church services led by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. African-Americans who attended his and other black liberation theology church services in Chicago are taught that their options are limited by the “other,” and this other is white society. Personal choice is not the route to success; choices are limited by the overwhelmingly oppressive power of dominant white America. America is not, for Rev. Wright’s paradigm, a land of opportunity, but instead a land of oppression.
In this political culture, the black political leader does not encourage his people to move forward, but rather convinces them that they cannot move forward. Whatever choices they make, their future is determined not by personal choice, but by the restrictive confines of white society. This is why actor-comedian Bill Cosby is viciously attacked when he suggests that African-Americans take responsibility for their own choices. His comments are perceived as an existential threat to the politics of black liberation and the entire political belief system that keeps the black political elites in power.
President Obama is constrained by the political paradigm of black leadership, since for him to be in control of the government would mean to betray his people. He would become the establishment “outsider” and he cannot do that. It would require the abandonment of his core beliefs. This is why he constantly blames former President Bush for the constraints that he still feels are holding him back. He is not in control; society and the world at large are. He blames the tsunami and Arab Spring for his economic failures. He leaves it to others (such as Senate leader Reid in the debt negotiations) to work out the details. The black political leader’s handbook does not have a chapter on “owning” decisions.
His strategy is to highlight and blame the political context of his predicament, rather than make and own decisions. He cannot own his decisions since in his view, and the view of black politicians, only white society controls the process of decision-making. These decisions are by nature oppressive. There is no accommodation in black liberation rhetoric for “good” white establishment decisions. Obama then faces two constraints: he cannot personally become part of the oppressive establishment, and secondly, cannot engage in establishment decision-making. Whether he is consciously aware of these constraints, and chooses to go along with them, or is unaware of these constraints he imposes upon himself, does not matter. The effect is the same.
While in reality President Obama is the most powerful man in the world, his Chicago-forged sense of identity as a black political leader restricts him to complaining about why he can’t effect meaningful change because of others, the excuse-du-jour now being the GOP House.
President Obama is not limited by the Republican Congress, or the decisions of past presidents, or the state of the economy; he is limited by his perceptions of what a black politician can and cannot do. Because black political thinking indoctrinates even its proponents into thinking that they are not responsible for their choices, that their futures are determined by white society, Barack Obama is either incapable of making decisions (because he never felt able to make them), or cannot betray the political paradigm of black leadership. Either way, the result is a lack of engagement in the decision making process.
An Autobiography of Black Politics. Dempsey J. Travis, Chicago, Urban Research Press, 1987.
Negro Politics: The Search for Leadership. James Q. Wilson. NY: The Free Press, 1960.