In black America, President Barack Obama is, and will remain, Soul Brother No. 1, despite a sharp decline in African-American wealth, disproportionately high levels of black unemployment and vocal critics who charge that he has taken black voters for granted.
Why? In general, Obama articulates a political vision that most blacks find appealing. His broad rhetorical strokes evince empathy for the disadvantaged and pay homage to the collective struggles that have made his accomplishments possible. For some, his rhetoric is annoyingly vague and insufficiently progressive. But few worry that he will pull a Clarence Thomas.
Obama generally refrains from accentuating the racial aspect of his decisions. But many blacks derive satisfaction from seeing Obama quietly create a whole new generation of African-American firsts--Attorney General (Eric Holder Jr.), Environmental Protection Agency administrator (Lisa Jackson), NASA administrator (Charles Bolden Jr.).
Obama's high standing among blacks, however, is not based primarily on the substantive particulars of this or that appointment or policy. It stems mainly from his unprecedented ascent to the White House, all while carrying with dignity-- la Jackie Robinson--the burden of his race.
In black America, Obama remains widely adored for his intellect and calm, thereby providing welcome relief from pervasive images of brutish African-American masculinity. Detractors--mainly whites--have snidely claimed that Obama is an affirmative-action President. But for black voters, Obama's personal superiority over his political rivals, in terms of knowledge, eloquence and graciousness, has provided them the gratification of being able, honestly, to scoff at the intended insult. That Obama has managed to avoid the personal snares that trip up so many politicians is yet another reason he continues to fill the hearts of most blacks with an ebullient pride.
There are, of course, blacks who denounce Obama. On the political right, Republicans Allen West, Tim Scott and Herman Cain deride Obama with undisguised scorn, to the delight of the Tea Party faithful. More problematic for Obama are black critics from the left--people such as Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and Maxine Waters, figures with records of deep, positive engagement with black communities. They complain that the President has squandered a historic opportunity--that he has done far too little to alleviate the plight of the black poor, that he has wrongly entrusted economic policy to a Wall Street--oriented, virtually all-white cadre of wealthy men and that he has avoided grappling forcefully with the vestigial and fresh racial discrimination that stifles the aspirations of many of his supporters.
These rebukes have stung the President, as was evident recently when he urged the audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus banquet to "stop complainin'" and "stop grumblin'." These criticisms, however, have also spurred Obama to take action to address them. Since the onset of Waters' complaints, for example, Obama has made a point of explaining himself to black arbiters of public opinion like Black Entertainment Television, noting how his policies specifically assist blacks and sprinkling his speeches with allusions not only to the middle class but also to the poor.