Ishmael Reed, the well known African American poet, essayist and critic wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, dated 11 December 2010. It was entitled “What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama.” I am not sure if Mr. Reed created the title for the piece or it was just the result of some copy editor’s effort. I raise this issue because the op-ed does not answer the question asked in the title. If the op-ed is not about the progressives’ inability to understand the president, what is Mr. Reed getting out?
As far as I can tell, Ishmael Reed is out to defend the president from progressive criticism and is particularly keen to do so because Barack Obama is black. I think this is perfectly understandable and perhaps legitimate too. However, in this case, his approach does result in assumptions and assertions that are questionable. And, in my opinion, it leads Mr. Reed to misread progressive criticism and its importance. Here is how this happens.
1. Mr. Reed appears to assume that progressives simply want President Obama to “man up.” He charges them with urging the president to act like John Wayne or Harry Truman. I think this greatly oversimplifies the criticism. However, if some progressives do want comparisons for President Obama’s style, I would certainly not pick Wayne or Truman. It seems to me that a more appropriate comparison can be made by remembering the very different tactics espoused by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. If I were to compare President Obama to one of these men it would be Washington. What many progressives would like to see, and believe what the historical moment calls for, is an approach much more like that espoused by Douglass.
2. Mr. Reed suggests that if the president did begin to adopt a more assertive approach he would be dismissed as “an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people.” Come now, Mr. Reed, it is a racially mixed group of progressives, including white folks, who are asking for a different approach. Nor is anyone expecting Barack Obama to become the incarnation of a Black Panther. The accusation that progressives want to put President Obama in a position where he is called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” or a “bully” is just wrong.
What progressives are saying is that the president has misread the severity of the nation’s problems, both domestically and as to foreign policy, and has thereby been led to seek consensus with the very forces responsible for the problems in the first place. In our view the situation calls for a more forthright strategy that involves not only principled stands within Congress but also an assertive educational approach with the citizens at large.
3. As far as progressives are concerned President Obama’s misjudgment has nothing to do with his race or, for that matter, opinion polls. Mr. Reed accuses progressives of being egocentric and believing that only they constitute the president’s base. This too is simply wrong. We know our own minority political status. And we know, as Mr. Reed points out, that many African and Latino Americans will support President Obama regardless of his approach to governance. But none of this is to the point when it comes to progressive criticism. All the support in the world from these or other groups will mean little if he does not deal effectively with national problems.
4. I think Mr Reed betrays his racially based approach to this issue when he makes the following statement. “Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout.” Quite frankly, this assertion is horribly off the mark. Politically speaking, American progressives have never been “used to getting it all.” But what programs and policies they have gotten has helped grow the African American and Latino American middle classes. And, I would suggest to Mr. Reed that if someone in leadership, whatever race he or she might be, does not learn how to metaphorically shout, there will be many more people, of all races, unemployed and unable to purchase Christmas presents.
5. Mr. Reed ends his opinion piece describing Barack Obama as “the coolest man in the room.” I assume by this he means that the president goes about his business without anger and does what needs to be done. Yet, the fact is he has not been doing what needs to be done. The pre-2008 liberal Obama is gone and Mr. Reed should understand that. The man in the White House is no longer the same man who worked for the welfare of people on Chicago’s south side so many years ago.
As a progressive American, I do not care how Obama metaphorically shouts. He can do it without anger and in a “cool” fashion. That is fine with me. Nor do I care what his race is. I care that he has an accurate analysis of what we are all facing and that he has the will power to tackle the problems in an effective way. I see the “cool” Mr. Reed, but I do not see the analysis and I am afraid I do not see the will power.