The Journey to 2012

With talk of the 2012 election heating up every day, we asked three Christian scholars to share their reflections on Barack Obama, the presidential campaign, and America's political future. Featuring contributions from R. Drew Smith, Larycia A. Hawkins, and Andrew Wilkes.

Welcome to that crazy point in the American political cycle where chatter and buzz about potential presidential candidates swell and subside at a seemingly nonstop rate. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen prominent GOP personalities of all stripes announce their addition to or subtraction from the 2012 conversation at a steady clip. Meanwhile, President Obama’s reelection campaign is on. But even after his triumphant takedown of Osama bin Laden, there’s no surefire guarantee of his 2012 success, and poll numbers reveal that the bump in his approval ratings following bin Laden’s death is already waning.

In light of this looming political crossroads, we asked three Christian commentators to offer their thoughts on Barack Obama’s presidency thus far, what he must do to be reelected, and how we can begin changing the polarized atmosphere in America today. Our panel of contributors includes R. Drew Smith on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on Obama’s presidency; Larycia A. Hawkins on how Obama’s reluctance to embrace his “blackness” hurts his presidency; and Andrew Wilkes on why it’s imperative that all Americans take responsibility to “do good” in between elections.

R. Drew SmithBarack Obama and the Niebuhr Presidency
By R. Drew Smith

Barack Obama has noted the influences on his thinking of prominent, twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, but Obama’s presidency has more strongly embraced core tenets of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of approximating rather than absolutizing our political ideals, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with our deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those proximate objectives.

Niebuhr’s analysis provides reinforcement to the adage “politics is the art of compromise.” Most American presidents have been clear on this point — although there have been strong arguments for at least two recent exceptions. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter and of George W. Bush, who both cited Niebuhr as influential in their thinking, were much less given to a Niebuhrian approximation of good than Obama seems to be. Both Presidents Carter and Bush were sharply criticized for their uncompromising leadership styles. Ironically, President Obama has been equally criticized for his compromising style.

For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued for its intrinsic value (i.e., compromise for the sake of compromise), nor merely out of a desire to achieve or retain positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Similarly, Obama has understood that, in politics, you rarely get everything you want and, in order to set some of what you want, and to govern on behalf of all of the people, you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. This has been his approach in each of his major legislative initiatives and in the battles over the federal budget — with his end results being successfully formalized policies that in each instance have been decried on several fronts for their presumed deficiencies.

Here Obama is not being inconsistent with what he projected during his presidential campaign. He was elected in large part because he symbolized a change from politics-as-usual. He represented a bigness in his projection of ideals at the heart of the American political imagination — ideals related to being a nation fundamentally committed to rights, freedom, and opportunity for its citizens and for the world. Obama’s health-reform bill, his economic stimulus program, his budgetary battles over key educational and social-service assistance he believes are definitive of American government, and his diplomatic or military pressures in support of political reforms in Egypt, Libya, and Ivory Coast are more suggestive than not of the idealism supported by voters in 2008.

Obama has certainly not been pitch-perfect in the compromises he has reached. The current budget’s draconian cuts to safety-net programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) smack of a familiar calculation about the political expendability of the poor — or, in Obama’s own words, “asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it.” Should programs effectively responding to persons most in need have been non-negotiable items in Obama’s budget, and in his presidency? Asked another way, was acceptance of the funding cuts to a program like WIC in the interest of a proximate good, or was it an unwillingness to take required actions for achieving that proximate good?

American presidents possess significant leadership capital, and how they choose to expend that capital is what defines their presidencies. What defined Obama’s candidacy was that it embodied something more in the eyes of voters than his personal quest for the office. The fact that he has been able to achieve constructive compromises within America’s polarized, zero-sum political context is a feat for which he deserves applause — and one for which he was singularly well-suited. Nevertheless, his presidential term, and his prospects for reelection, will turn on how well he connects his political actions to a broader good and how well the American people understand those connections.

Dr. R. Drew Smith is Director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has edited numerous volumes on churches and public life, including Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment and New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. He is currently writing a book on black churches and contemporary public policy activism.

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Can I Get a Black President?
By Larycia A. Hawkins

Perhaps Barack Obama’s strategy of racial transcendence during the 2008 presidential campaign was understandable. As an outsider candidate with little name recognition at the provenance of his bid for the White House, Obama had to fashion a broad, patchwork base of the American public. So above the racial fray he went.
But as a former community organizer among black communities, surely he could code switch, that is, speak to the black community in familiar tones (when on the Southside, do as the Southsiders do), galvanizing black support by highlighting particular black concerns, right?

Wrong. Even when engaging the black community on issues of black concerns, candidate Obama spoke the racially patronizing language of personal responsibility. Translation: white middle-class values are the standard of societal respectability, and African Americans? They are a hot mess. During his June 2008 Father’s Day speech at Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s Southside, Obama did not parlay the pulpit into an opportunity to cast a vision for how he planned to address black concerns, but he instead disregarded a black agenda in favor of castigating black behavior.

The primary glint of a black president has been Obama’s cadence, which when in black communities does sound like that of a black preacher. So, black concerns he will not emphasize, but the black church he will use as a resource when it suits the moment.

President Obama is certainly cognizant of the fact that some policies are of heightened import to black communities. Indeed, in his famed race speech in March 2008, Obama recommended that black Americans, “…(bind) our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family” (emphasis added).

The President’s conflation of black grievances and broader American grievances–which he personifies as white–is in short, grievous. While joblessness is undoubtedly painful for all Americans, joblessness plagues the African American community with furious ferocity given that black unemployment is double white unemployment. While white women may still struggle to shatter the glass ceiling, black women must still struggle to get a foot past the interview door given the fact that their ethnic names render them less likely than white women to get an interview in the first place.

Can I get a black president who does not talk down to the black community, but who rather acknowledges the peculiar burden of race and the double burden of race and gender?

Can I get a black president who does not capitulate to the post-racial cacophony that renders race irrelevant to crafting policies about problems that differentially affect white and black and Latino Americans?

So what must President Obama do to be successful in 2012? Where race is concerned, nothing is ever simple, but an acknowledgement of the utility rather than the futility of a black agenda will improve the President’s standing among black communities and with the Congressional Black Caucus. Yes You Can be a black President for black concerns, Mr. Obama.

Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.

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A Civic Altar Call
 By Andrew Wilkes

The race for the 2012 presidential election is in full swing. President Obama recently commenced his campaign, released his first ad, and convened a $30,800-per-plate fundraiser in Harlem. On the Republican side, former Governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have both established exploratory committees — which, in plain-folks’ English, means they’re running for President. As we move towards 2012, our attention will increasingly shift towards the drama of electoral politics.

But what if all of us — and not only politicians — are elected for public service? What if God created us in Christ for good works? St. Augustine envisioned sin as the state of being turned inward upon oneself. Given this portrayal, the implication is that election is not only about our hearts flowering open to God, but also about our hearts pivoting, in love, towards the neighbors, enemies, and strangers in our midst.

In a representative democracy, we often assume that our elected representatives will handle all of our public concerns. Everyday folks, we surmise, have to take the kids to school, perform well at work, and wake everyone up for Sunday service. We consider ourselves to be exemplary citizens, moreover, if we watch a presidential debate or two, read a candidate’s policy platform, and set aside the time to vote. Both concerns are legitimate. Private matters should not be sacrificed on an altar of the common good. Informed electoral participation is indeed commendable.

A fuller sense of human flourishing before God, however, involves taking responsibility for our communities between election cycles. The work of democracy relies on a voting public, but also includes the tasks of board governance in nonprofits, broad parent engagement in local schools, and sustained involvement within — or perhaps the reform of — public institutions like libraries, hospitals, and prisons.

Presidential elections are critical inflection points within our society. What happens in November every four years impacts the national budget, the operation of federal agencies, and the resources of state, county, and local governments. Their importance, though, does not depreciate our sacred summons to “do good to all as we have opportunity” (Gal. 6:10). God is issuing a civic altar call to those with ears to hear. Our communities, our congregations, and our precious children await our response.

Andrew Wilkes is a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, as well as a contributing writer for Sojourners Magazine, and a Huffington Post blogger. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, he has worked as a Freedom Schools teaching intern for the Children’s Defense Fund, a policy and organizing fellow for Sojourners, and a policy intern during the first administration of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. You can follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.

  1. Miss Hawkins, I certainly can understand the tempatation to wade into the “…he’s black so he should help us because we are black and so needy…” mindset. However this reminds me of overhearing a barber talking to his customer about Jesus one day. The barber asked his patron, “Do you say that Jesus is Black?” The patron responded, “It doesn’t matter what color Jesus is even if he had a color; and he doesn’t…it doesn’t matter” The barber said, “See now that’s where you’re wrong,Jesus is Black, the bible says he is in Revelations and our little black boys and girls need to know that.” The patron said, “Well what about all the rest of the children…and its The Revelation.” The barber said, “I ain’t worried about the rest of the children, why should I be?”
    Miss Hawkins I understand that it seems like it’s been forever that we’ve been treated unfairly at just about every level and that was when the playing field was stacked highly against us. Now we need to start taking care of ourselves, for example by starting businesses so that when our children graduate from college they won’t have to go to where the field although somewhat more level, is still lopsided. Why must we always be the ones who have nothing and expect to be given a hand. That’s our responsibility, not the Presidents or others. His job is to manage and guide a whole melting pot of people; and to use the power that was given him by all people: rich, poor, middle class, black, white, hispanic, asian, etc., etc., etc., to serve to the agenda of needy blacks, to the neglect of needy people, would only hasten to divide the country to the point of no return.
    For all practical purposes our President has to operate as he does. He’s not talking down to us when he says in essence be responsible, (even people who can’t help but be on welfare know how to do this) but some people just won’t be no matter at what level they are on and we should not have to support irresponsibility, and surely we should not look to a man to bail us out.
    But if we look to the One who can effectively change us from the inside out as the only One who can make any field level, then we’re just spinning our wheels.

  2. Correction to the last sentence. It should read “But if we refuse to look to the One who can effectively change us from the inside out, as the only One Who can make any field level, then we’re just spinning our wheels.”