With his time in office waning, President Barack Obama is speaking out on race and poverty in increasingly blunt terms as violent protests in U.S. cities highlight the unrealized promise of his election.
Searing images of a burning CVS pharmacy in Baltimore and armored vehicles arrayed along the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, are a grim contrast to the elated, multi-racial crowd celebrating in Chicago’s Grant Park on the warm November night in 2008 after the nation elected its first black president.
Many of the hopes of that night haven’t been fulfilled. Polls show racial polarization in the U.S. is at the highest in decades. Poverty is higher among Americans in general and blacks in particular. The gap between rich and poor has grown.
A president who throughout his two terms has been restrained in addressing racial controversies now is raising his voice and declaring he’ll make lifting up impoverished communities and the young men within them the cause of his post-presidency years.
“He’s responding in a very deeply personal and emotional way,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers and a long-time family friend. “The experience that far too many African-American boys and men have in society of a lack of fairness, of a lack of equal treatment and of a lack of opportunities, is one the president feels obviously quite personally about since he is an African-American man.”
In the wake of the upheaval in Baltimore -- riots triggered by the death of a black man injured while in police custody -- those emotions have emerged more publicly.
Obama has urged a “soul-searching” national examination of the consequences of hopelessness in impoverished minority communities. Last week, he spoke of the missing love in his own childhood with an absent father, in helping to start an initiative to boost the life prospects of minority boys and young men.
On Saturday, at historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, first lady Michelle Obama told the school’s graduating class that she and her husband know the indignities of a racially polarized society: people crossing to the other side of the street; store clerks watching too closely.
“And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be,” she said. “We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives.”
The president’s next chance to address the subject will come Tuesday, when he’s scheduled to speak at a summit of religious leaders at Georgetown University in Washington on overcoming poverty.
America has undergone great change in the age of Obama. Same-sex weddings have become routine. The nation pulled itself out of the most severe economic downtown in generations. Seventeen million more people have gained health insurance. Cars are beginning to drive themselves.
Yet the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore reprised a familiar storyline: anger over what was seen by many as callous police treatment of a young black man spread through an economically depressed neighborhood and exploded into looting and arson.
“I must confess to having shared that great optimism, especially because I had been so impressed personally with Barack Obama when he was my student and research assistant,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University. “ It’s clear that many Americans expected more racial healing than any president could possibly deliver. The problems we face are too deeply embedded in our history and in our economic and political structure to be transformed by a presidential administration, or two or three.”
Sixty-one percent of Americans rated race relations as “bad” in a CBS/New York Times poll taken April 30 through May 3, the worst reading since race riots exploded in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In April 2009, months after Obama was inaugurated, Americans considered relations “good” by a lopsided 66 percent to 22 percent.
The societal barriers are economic as well as racial, although frequently the two are intertwined. The U.S. poverty rate rose to 14.5 percent in 2013 from 13.2 percent in 2008, largely as a hangover of the recession. Blacks were harder hit, with 27.1 percent in poverty in 2013, up from 24.6 percent in 2008.
Wealth has become more concentrated, too, with the richest 1 percent of Americans holding 43 percent of U.S. assets in 2012, up from 39 percent in 2008, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics. The bottom 90 percent held 22 percent of U.S. wealth, down from 25 percent in 2008.
That may reflect gridlocked government and the powerful forces underlying racial and economic inequality as much as it does the success or failure of Obama’s presidency.
“It’s naive to expect that a president can move mountains,” said Robert Reich, labor secretary in the Clinton administration. “This president faced an enormous economic threat from the moment he moved into office that made it difficult for him to do much of anything besides turn the economy around.”
At this week’s summit on poverty at Georgetown, Obama will make the case “for why the solutions are within reach,” Jarrett said. “We just have to make the investment, particularly in young people.”
Obama can point to progress.
Minorities have benefited the most from his signature health care law. Since subsidized health plans became available through Obamacare’s online exchanges, the uninsured rate has dropped 9.2 percentage points among blacks and 12.3 points among Latinos, compared with a 5.3-point decline among whites, according to an analysis of Gallup Poll data by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Tax legislation Obama pushed through Congress over the opposition of Republicans also has expanded the earned income tax credit for the working poor and raised tax rates on the wealthy. One of the remaining priorities of the Obama administration is to address drug sentencing disparities that disproportionately fall on blacks.
Obama, 53, began his career as a community organizer working on economic issues in impoverished black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. His life story as the child of a mixed-race marriage contributed to his political rise. A speech on race relations, titled “A More Perfect Union,” was a high point in his 2008 campaign.
Yet as president, with few exceptions, Obama has acted cautiously in addressing race.
An off-the-cuff comment in 2009 -- that a police officer “acted stupidly” in the arrest of prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr in his own home -- caused a backlash. Obama quickly diffused tensions with a “beer summit” at the White House with the officer and Gates.
A rare instance in which Obama inserted himself into a racially charged episode came three years later, after the fatal shooting in Florida of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama, who has two daughters, said at a March 2012 press conference in the White House Rose Garden. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
After the high-profile police killings last year of unarmed black men in Ferguson and Staten Island, Obama took a larger role. For example, he appointed a task force to address tensions between police and minority communities, which recommended more oversight and collection of data on the use of force by law enforcement officers.
In the wake of last month’s riots in Baltimore, Obama cast the endemic poverty in many minority neighborhoods as an indictment of the nation’s moral priorities.
“If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns,” Obama said in comments at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
This month, in the Bronx to unveil a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the prospects of minority boys and young men, Obama suggested that the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance would be a key element of his work after leaving the White House.
“The president has repeatedly said to me and to others who have been involved in the alliance that this is going to be among his highest priorities when he leaves office and that this is the work of his lifetime,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Obama is committed to using his brand, the prestige of his office and years of social capital to address the issue, Walker added.
Obama cast the work in personal terms when he spoke at Lehman College in the Bronx.
“We see ourselves in these young men,” he said. “I grew up without a dad. I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path. The only difference between me and a lot of the other young men in this neighborhood and all across the country is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving.”