Two historical candidates bucked the odds and brought change to the two major parties in the nation 12 months ago. But with mounting criticism and public missteps, has change been worth it so far?
Just 12 months ago, there was so much to be proud of for Black America - from both sides of the political aisle.
President Obama was underdog candidate-turned-history’s darling, becoming the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American to garner the post. As president, Mr. Obama would also hold the title of the de facto head of the Democratic Party. He did so after fending off political legacy (e.g., Hillary Clinton) and tenure (e.g., Joe Biden) within his own party before defeating a war hero and a cult hero (e.g., John McCain and Sarah Palin, respectively) in the general election.
Entering into office just mere weeks later was another underdog candidate: Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland. After 6 rounds of voting, the former head of GOPAC became the head of the Republican National Committee, head of a grand old party of conservatives best known for being “too old”, losing national affluence, and sustaining Southern Strategy over the past several decades.
Both promised changes for the better – for their parties and for our nation, particularly for America’s up-and-coming generations.
After 12 months, much of the change that we can hope for at this point is a change in perception and direction. However, some of the criticism of both men has been unfair.
Despite both being attorneys, no lawyer without the last name of Cochran could hope to deal with such a tangled web of self-incriminating behavior and bloody debauchery as President Obama and Chairman Steele have been required to over the course of the past 12 months.
Obama and Steele needed to act aggressively to the crises before them, admirable choices that are often forgotten about as both have endured hiccups along the way. In winning as telegenic and affable candidates that found connectivity with young audiences, both men discovered that they overestimated the power of their personality and celebrity (i.e., their “political capital”) to re-direct their teams’ efforts while concurrently perhaps underestimating the severity of the problems facing them as leaders. This immense pressure to make immediate changes under these conditions impacted these men into missteps and miscalculations mixing in some victories during the course of 2009.
In the case of Obama, the 44th president came into office at a time when the nation was at the precipice of major financial collapse, forcing him to act to turn around the increasing joblessness, lack of access to credit, and void in consumer confidence and activity. Despite his affection for President Lincoln, President Obama was not able to follow his lead of uniting the nation under one common cause nor was he able to follow the lead of other presidents (Reagan and GW Bush immediately after 9/11) in creating financial policy that would turn around the economy. Instead, Obama followed his precedent of choice (FDR) without stemming unemployment at 8% (some estimates have the true number as high as 17% and upwards of 25% in some Black communities) or influencing at-risk financial institutions to filter TARP-given funds to the American public to unfreeze credit and stimulate the economy. Further, his willingness to allow Congressional leaders to steer legislation has led to a backlash against his stimulus package and health care reform initiatives, leading to protests nationally and dropping presidential (and Democratic) approval ratings.
In the case of Steele, his experience and media presence have not translated into immediate changes to transform the image of the RNC. Perceived in-fighting with conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh (folks that, ironically, do not consider themselves Republicans) and reported conflicts with some old-school Republicans hampered Steele’s ability to broaden the base of the Republican Party and fully leverage the energy of the conservative Tea Party movement, thus leading to continued perceptions that the Republicans and Tea Party goers have remained the same non-diverse activists that many remember from the delegate floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Regardless of the frustrations, the results are indicting but not an indictment yet as their terms are not complete. Further, it is not as though both have had the total support that they require for such a historical job.
For Steele, overcoming the decades-old GOP banter with Southern Strategy (along with Republican experiences that they can win national elections without diversity) and without the newest trends in technology is not a job that will be won overnight. Crafting a new image of the Republican Party (one that is more in-line with its history and Steele’s new vision of conservative inclusion) comes that much harder when Republican insiders continued racist behavior throughout the year, including those working for elected officials in South Carolina and Tennessee. Steele’s verbal gaffes can be overlooked when focusing on the greater picture: Steele has yet to receive the fortified support of Republicans in their efforts to retake seats in Congress and diversify the party, despite a shift back towards Republican candidates (according to major polls), the upsurge of African-American and minority leadership within Republican circles, and major victories in Virginia and New Jersey – all on his watch.
Just the same, President Obama has not received any favors from his Democratic compatriots during his first 12 months. Many were quick to note Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst during the president’s health care speech in September, but fewer remember Obama’s call for congressional leaders to consider Republican health care reform ideas into the final legislation. The president’s critics have been as unwilling to overlook presidential gaffes such as the “Beer Summit” about as much as the Democrats were willing to overlook the president’s directive from that September speech, instead looking to their Democratic supermajority for non-transparent guidance. Further, Harry Reid’s most recent behavior – between his comments about “Negro dialect” and his willingness to purchase the votes of Landrieu and Nelson during the health care debate in the Senate – was one example of many that single-handedly tarnished much of the Obama Promise: a change in the culture of Washington under his administration. Still the same, the president has been able to pass some major legislation, but only because he has been forced to abandon the bi-partisanship that he campaigned on (but has not delivered to date.)
The beauty with history-making figures, though, is that because they have broken the mold, they are capable of creating any mold to fit a new and changing time should they have the courage to grasp the times and ignore the critics, including those within their own camp. It would seem that the two well-intended men made Black America proud with the rise to leadership in 2009, only to bruise their reputations (and perhaps their egos as well) as obstacles both foreseen and others cropped up during a major portion of their tenure. Both still have to time to claim success and carve a legacy of positive American political history for themselves. Better team-building with reliable, talented, and visionary leaders that these men can mentor to, partner with, and be challenged by will be key in determining whether these men will make the most out of year 2 of their leaderships of the major political parties of the nation.
Can both be winners in 2010? Probably not as they oppose each other politically. However, with increased support, tweaking of their methodology and support teams, and insight from 2009, they can both make Black American proud while fostering improvements in America, thus turning around the mixed results under their watches in 2009.
If so, change will be worth it after all.