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Opinion | Avoiding the Obama-Era Silence Trap

I remember the Obama years well. There was a massive surge of national pride when Barack Obama was elected. America had done something important. It had overcome a hurdle on its path to racial inclusion. It had dealt a blow to its past.

That was the feeling. But it was just a feeling.

After a brief honeymoon period, the real work of governing set in and the opposition rallied. At times the vitriol coming at not only Obama, but at his family, was so beyond the pale that the natural impulse among many liberals was to circle the wagons around him.

Progressives felt it necessary to clip their own wings, to temper their demands and be restrained in their complaints, lest their fair critique become conflated with the unfair attacks of those opposed to any progressive achievements.

Leaning in could easily come to feel like piling on. There was a whisper in the air, an unspoken insistence, that the role of the left was to uplift a Democratic president rather than to task him.

But this is the presidency. The job is synonymous with pressure. No one who is unequipped to deal with pressure — including pressure from people who helped them get elected — should seek it.

I remember my own writings in the early days of Obama’s presidency. I thought it fair. Much of it was praise and defense of him.

Conservatives would often respond positively to the criticism in my columns, even while making sure that I understood that they disagreed with me on almost everything else. They would say things like, “You’re finally beginning to open your eyes” or, “You’re coming off the Democratic plantation.”

Liberals, particularly other Black people, often took my criticisms as traitorous. I was called self-hating, an Uncle Tom and a “handkerchief head,” a pejorative for a Black person submissive to white people.

I felt that I was simply doing my job to call things as I saw them and to stand up for a set of values, liberal and progressive. But there was a brisk market at the time for Black people willing to criticize Obama. They could say things about him that would be considered racist, or racially insensitive, if coming from a white person.

I saw many Black people give in to the attraction of this check. It was a hustle.

Trying to not be grouped into that cohort became a task unto itself. Learning to turn down some TV appearances from producers who only called after my column had included a critique of the president, but never after it had praised him.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

  • Ezra Klein, Opinion columnist, argues that Biden and the Democrats must act boldly, and clearly, to help Americans in need: “You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did.”
  • Claudia Sahm, an economist, writes that Biden’s stimulus plans should be open-ended and that Americans “deserve the peace of mind of knowing that relief will continue as long as they need it.”
  • Ross Douthat, Opinion columnist, argues that rather than desiring large-scale change from President Biden, “a meaningful majority of Americans may be satisfied with recovery, normalcy, a phase of decadence that feels depressing but not dire.”
  • Adam Jentleson writes that the president and Senate Democrats must do away with the filibuster or risk endless gridlock: “We can’t afford for the Senate to remain the place where good ideas go to die.”
  • Times Readers shared their hopes for the next four years and the Biden administration.

But, this burden of subconsciously modulating responses and demands of a presidency and administration is unfair to liberals and does real harm to liberalism itself.

For progressives to refrain from applying pressure is to abdicate responsibility, because it allows an unnatural imbalance in which the only pressure the president feels is from his staunchest opponents.

With the beginning of the Joe Biden administration, I sincerely hope that liberals have learned this lesson, and I believe that many have.

As Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, told The Washington Post, it is important “not to do what we did with Barack Obama, which is sit back and think now we have it fixed. It’s not fixed. Or to sit back and think that the work has been done. It’s only started.”

We understand that Biden takes office during a time of multiple, major crises facing the country and that he will have to clean up behind a destructive and disastrous Trump administration.

But progress must be made on the issues that progressives care about. When Republicans held power they wielded it without regret and even tried to enshrine it. Now, they would like nothing more than to guilt and scare Democrats into not aggressively pursuing a transformative agenda, hoping to contain them to middling changes as they wait for the time the political winds once again shift in their direction, and they surely will shift.

Democratic politicians too often live under the illusion that if they moderate their aspirations and asks, they can appease the mushy middle of the electorate, often white, that sees no problem or contradiction in voting for Obama one election, Trump the next and Biden the next.

They chase the fickle at the expense of the fervent.

Progressives simply can’t afford to let that happen again.

It is not apostasy to demand results from your leaders, elected by your support, on the issues that you care about. Nor is it apostasy to call them out if they are too eager to compromise away any real chance at substantive change.

Republicans are going to resist and obstruct at every turn. That is their strategy. The question is: What are Democrats going to do? What is their strategy?

They must be unflinching and bold, insistent of aggressive policy change, and the media and the public — especially those who helped elect them — must be similarly unflinching in their reproval.

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