Obama and Baltimore: The Story of his Presidency

16 May 2015

IMPACT Article of the Month


Following the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, the city of Baltimore soon became engulfed in riots and looting. The city had grown infamous for the tragically high infant-mortality rate among the black community, as well as the notoriously terrible housing conditions the city’s black residents endured. The death of the great civil-rights leader was the spark that set aflame the tinderbox of deprivation and despair that Baltimore had become. Brutal confrontations broke out across the city as enraged residents fought the beleaguered ranks of the National Guard. Local lives and businesses were torn down amidst the urban chaos.


Last month Baltimore found itself host to another tumult of rage and frustration from its black residents, following the death of 25 year old Freddie Grayson at the hands of local police. So it seems that the farcically cyclical nature of history has evinced itself once more on the broken pavements of the Maryland city. When casting an eye back to Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of President Obama’s election, we must how has America now found itself in such a position? America was supposed to have turned a corner in race-relations but instead, after the Trayvon Martin shooting, Ferguson and now Baltimore, our TV screens could well be directly replaying us footage from those race-riots of 1968 and we would be none the wiser.


When running for the White House in 2008, the then Senator Barack Obama delivered a magnificent speech in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy, about race-relations in present day America.  The speech was classic Obama circa 2008; eloquent, engaging and inspiring and, unfortunately, it left many of the public with unrealistic expectations as to what Obama could achieve in office. Obama talked about the racial injustices in American history that had led to inequalities that were hurting American society today. In his typically far-ranging style Obama talked about the founding fathers, slavery, the Jim Crow laws, Brown vs. Board of Education and the sickening incarceration rate for black Americans (by 2001 one in six black males in America had been to prison).

Obama in his address stated, ‘I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own’, but despite such initial caution, as Obama’s candidacy for the Presidency came closer and closer to realisation, expectations of and faith in Obama as a potential President rose higher and higher. By the time of his election and the scenes of celebration and hysteria in Grant Park, Chicago, Obama’s fate, as a disappointing President, was practically sealed.


There are numerous reasons why Obama has disappointed so many of his supporters (many of them now former), many of those are his own fault, while some of them are those of the supporters’; individuals who either didn’t pay enough attention to his background and what he was actually saying or who quite simply weren’t familiar enough with the difficulties of the US political landscape. Regarding his foreign policy, Obama is entirely culpable for the disdain directed towards him by former supporters. In 2008 Obama promised to close Guantanamo bay, something his supporters and above all Gitmo’s God forsaken residents are still waiting and no doubt praying for. Obama promised, not just to Americans, but to the citizens of the world, a new sort of foreign policy for the world’s only superpower, one that would see America making choices that it could be proud of and that would see human rights and dignity trumpeted and emphasised throughout the globe; nearly eight years later and the children and farmers on the war-torn plains of Afghanistan and Pakistan find themselves cowering from the murderous and unaccountable drones that Obama deploys with criminal negligence.


Other supporters hoped that Obama would redress the unjust inequalities of modern America that were exposed so absolutely with the global financial crisis. The decadent and detached lifestyles and values of the wealthy American elite had directly contributed to the crisis, but surely Obama, who spoke so eloquently of stagnant wages and falling living-standards, would be able to halt such iniquity? Alas, this has not been the case. The combination of having to deal with the near implosion of capitalism as we know it, an outmoded American economy that is barely fit to serve, trying to provide free health-care for all Americans and a radicalised and rabidly antagonistic Republican party means that aside from increasing oversight over dealings in Wall Street (and many in his party still felt he didn’t go far enough in this matter) little has been achieved. Come 2016, the fortunes of America’s one per cent will have changed very little, when compared with their pre-Obama assets; in fact, for those whose fortunes derive from the pharmaceutical industry, with the rapid growth of health-care in America through Obama’s Affordable Care Act, they’re probably even wealthier, off the back of sick American’s.


Since the mid-term elections of 2014 Obama has found himself increasingly hemmed in by an obdurate Congress and an unwholesome collection of rancorous Governors. In order to make progress on any of the domestic issues close to President’s heart, he has been reduced to two options: either employing Executive Orders or using his national platform to directly address an issue and appeal to Americans through their TV screens. With Obama approaching the end of his tenure as President he has become increasingly bold with his executive orders, deploying them on matters as diverse (and controversial) as immigration, cyber-security, climate-change and equal pay. However, it is only through the latter tactic that Obama has been gaining some traction and has been able to increasingly speak for those in American politics who do not have a voice. To listen to Obama orate now, it’s as if the last seven years never happened and that the charismatic and inspirational Obama, who showed such great promise, never left us. By speaking from the pulpit on a range of issues Obama seems to have re-discovered some of the old magic and re-connected with voters. Polls consistently show Obama with a solid job-approval rating of 47%, a figure which while not spectacular is leagues ahead of the dismal approval ratings of Congress and is a considerable improvement from the 40% approval polled in September, before Obama’s reinvigoration via Executive Actions and his new ‘speaker-in-chief’ role.


Obama’s response following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and six teachers were murdered, was emblematic of much of his Presidency; Obama spoke movingly about the incalculable loss of life, the devastation the gunman had wreaked and the urgent need to tackle gun-control before such incidents took any more lives. Sandy Hook appeared at first to be a real turning point in the debate around gun-control, partly due to Obama’s eloquent response, as many American’s seemed to warm-up to the notion of further firearm restrictions. For the first-time national polling companies had over 50% of American supporting restricting gun-access and tightening controls. When it came to converting this national mood into tangible legislative progress though, Obama found himself once again facing the dogged Republican obstructionism that has come to define not just his Presidency but the wider political landscape. Obama announced plans to reduce gun-magazine sizes, to ban automatic weapons (apparently you don’t need an Uzi to protect your family or to hunt- fair enough) and to introduce universal background checks for anyone buying a gun- as you know, they might be dangerously unstable and perhaps shouldn’t have access to a weapon that can kill dozens of people with little effort. The truth is though, Obama made a promise he couldn’t keep and America is no closer to solving its gun problem than it was before the Sandy Hook tragedy.


Nearly two years later, and it appears as though Obama has learnt from his mistake; the President still seeks to speak his mind on a variety of topics, particularly when there is an opportunity to sway public opinion, but now he skirts the issue of legislation and instead speaks directly to Americans. This was evident in the manner in which Obama handled the Baltimore riots. The President called Baltimore part of a, “slow-rolling crisis,’’ he then called for communities, police departments and the country to do some, “soul-searching,” in the wake of the riots. In the address the President gave America some hard-truths; he talked of how the country had left behind too many “impoverished” communities, whose residents, with no realistic opportunities, had sunken to crime. No longer could the country expect to send into the police to do the dirty work and contain the problems in these communities, said the President, if they did well, “then we’re going to go through the same cycles of periodic violence, and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual.”


It was a revitalising experience to hear Obama speak to his country so candidly about the issues or race and inequality that still dog America. In reality though, the Baltimore riots are chiefly a concern for the Governor of Maryland, the same as the Ferguson riots were the responsibility of the Missouri Governor. As Obama dejectedly acknowledged in his inspired analysis of the Baltimore riot, these outbursts of rage from abused and deprived black communities across America will continue to reoccur until Congress makes massive investments in urban renewal programmes- not something that is going to be happening in a Republican controlled Congress anytime soon. Obama then, sadly, as President finds himself unable to change the country he was elected to lead.


Obama may take some consolation though in on certain part of his legacy: the imagery of his Presidency. The importance of America electing a black President, particularly considering the ad hominem nature of their elections, cannot be overestimated. Children all across America will have grown-up with a black President, this will have been a norm for them, and this looking at America’s recent history this is a radical change. The lasting imagery of his Presidency, and his words on race-relations, will change the way the next generation of Americans view racial issues and engage with incidents like Baltimore. For the immediate future though, we are left with a transformative politician who was unable to transform much of anything, and a city, a nation divided by race and opportunity.

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