The election of Barack Obama was a milestone in US history with tremendous symbolic importance for the black community. But was this symbolism backed up by substance? Did ordinary black people really benefit under the first black president? This is the question that Andra Gillespie sets out to answer in Race and the Obama Administration. Using a variety of methodological techniques—from content analysis of executive orders to comparisons of key indicators, such as homeownership and employment rates under Clinton, Bush, and Obama— the book charts the progress of black causes and provides valuable perspective on the limitations of presidential power in addressing issues of racial inequality. Gillespie uses public opinion data to investigate the purported disconnect between Obama’s performance and his consistently high ratings among black voters, asking how far the symbolic power of the first black family in the White House was able to compensate for the compromises of political office. Scholarly but accessible, Race and the Obama Administration will be of interest to students and lecturers in US politics and race studies, as well as to general readers who want to better understand the situation of the black community in the US today and the prospects for its improvement.
The introduction begins by recounting the immediate legacy of Obama’s presidency following the 2016 US election. Gillespie brings her own story to the fore as she recounts the affect this influx of news stories had on her. The chapter then moves on to discuss the symbolism of the presidency and how his critics and supporters reacted when the tenure came to an end. It examines job approval among diverse ethnic groups and the ‘ambivalence’ shared by many of them at a president who may not have done as much as he could to support the African American community.
Chapter 1 outlines the various constraints on Obama – the separation of powers/constitutional constraints, the size and scope of the federal government bureaucracy, the ‘opportunity costs’ of presidential actions/initiatives and public opinion. A theory is advanced with three considerations that President Obama had to take into account as he crafted his agenda. Those insights will help to frame the discussion of the rest of the book and help to put the Obama record— and black voter reaction to that record— into context. It introduces a normative theory of race and presidential representation and synthesises the presidential power and ‘deracialisation literatures’ to make the claim that presidents are structurally constrained in their ability to address a host of issues of concern to blacks. As a result, they tend to address issues of race symbolically. Barack Obama, as the first black president and a black politician who rose to power by using deracialisation, or a more race-neutral campaign strategy, will be particularly susceptible to resorting to more symbolic means of racial representation. This theory is then tested by examining both the racially substantive policies that have been implemented by the Obama Administration and by charting key indicators of black well-being relative to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
The racial successes, failures, and impact of the Obama presidency
Chapter 2 provides a general overview of Obama’s performance, presented with respect to race and the state of black-white racial inequality in America on a number of key indicators. It analyses the President’s political philosophy on addressing racial inequality and injustice. It argues that he takes a ‘deracialised’ approach to race issues, but embraces policies that are likely to be of disproportional benefit to African Americans because of the social and economic disadvantages they experience in American society. For example, the Affordable Care Act, or ‘Obamacare’ is of particular significance for African Americans and Latinos because they constitute 20 million and 30 million of the 60 million Americans without health care respectively. It examines if this was also the case with measures to address the concerns of Veterans, given that in terms of their proportion of the total U.S. population African Americans were more likely than their white counterparts to be drafted during the Vietnam War and to serve on the frontline.
Seven vignettes of substantive politics in the Obama Administration
Hollywood actors and life coaches often invoke analogies about paddling ducks to illustrate the need for composure. As the saying goes, ducks glide effortlessly on top of the water while paddling furiously beneath the surface. The image of the paddling duck is useful in helping to frame the discussion of President Obama’s accomplishments in responding to African American political interests. In this chapter, seven cases are examined to see if there is any evidence that the Obama Administration was paddling beneath the surface. Here evidence is found that President Obama made an effort to address issues of concern to African Americans. Was the Obama Administration attempting to set the agenda on racial concerns in specific issue domains? To the extent that comparative data is available, did Obama Administration officials attend to racial issues more or less often than their predecessors? It begins with a comparative analysis of the substance of executive orders in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations. Next press releases from four Cabinet departments are examined: Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. Finally, it looks at federal reports issued in the wake of police shootings of unarmed blacks and then turn to a comparative discussion of presidential pardons and commutations.
Descriptive representation and rhetoric in the Obama Administration
This chapter begins to incorporate an analysis of more symbolic politics focusing on aspects of the Obama Administration which are symbolic and substantive. The racial backgrounds of the people presidents appoint to positions of influence should not preclude their ability to act in the interests of all Americans, blacks included. However, the representation literature does provide a justification for the importance of descriptive representation and even makes claims about the connections between descriptive representation and substantive politics. Similarly, presidential rhetoric can be deployed for symbolic and substantive purposes. It can create a powerful signal of inclusivity. It can also help set a substantive policy agenda which could have long- reaching implications for reducing inequality and for aiding the life chances of blacks and other disadvantaged groups. This chapter includes a comparative analysis of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama’s State of the Union Addresses to gain greater insight into the ways presidents make symbolic gestures toward African Americans and the extent to which they propose policies that are targeted toward black communities and examines the ways that presidents respond to questions about race in news conferences.
Artistic performances and commencement speeches from presidential couples
In this chapter, the book shifts to an analysis of pure symbolic politics. It looks at arts, culture, and inspirational rhetoric. Who are the president and first lady inviting to the White House to entertain the nation and the world? What does this signal about their racial and cultural commitments? Later it looks at the rhetoric of commencement addresses. In addition to examining the content of presidents’ commencement speeches, it incorporates a comparative analysis of first ladies’ speeches to determine the ways that Michelle Obama contributed to the symbolic racial politics of her husband’s presidency. This empirical study ends with a look at black attitudes toward Barack Obama and aspirations regarding his presidency.
Public opinion and black attitudes toward the Obama presidency
Here, Barack Obama’s ‘unwavering support’ amongst the African American demographic is studied by taking a look at a satirical sketch from SNL as well as real data from Gallup’s analytics. The chapter discusses the dichotomy between this support and the worsening conditions generally for black Americans during the Obama Administration and comments upon why this may be. The chapter then assesses the reaction of African American public opinion on the record of the Obama Presidency by turning to black citizens themselves to answer the question of whether ‘symbolic politics’ is enough. Using public opinion data, black Americans are asked how satisfied they are with President Obama’s performance on racial issues and determine the relationship between satisfaction with the president’s racial performance and general job approval ratings and enthusiastic electoral support for President Obama in 2012 by using qualitative and quantitative data sources.
The Conclusion provides a balanced overview of the achievements and limitations of Obama’s record on race relations. It hopes to provide readers with important context with which to judge the Obama Administration. By explicitly comparing the performance of the Obama Administration with the Clinton and Bush Administrations at critical junctures in this analysis, it gains perspective on the limitations and possibilities of presidential power in being able to unilaterally address issues of racial inequality. Similarly, the comparative analysis of the presidents’ symbolic behaviour also provides some insight into the extent of President Obama’s importance as a racial figurehead. Finally, by exploring public opinion data on reactions to the Obama Administration, it has the ability to understand black voters on their terms and ascertain what their political desires and expectations are and make distinctions—if necessary and appropriate—between black mass and elite opinion.
In this epilogue, Obama’s legacy is re-examined in light of the Trump presidency. Like many people, Gillespie expected Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election when her opposition was running a campaign aimed at maligning Mexicans, insulting Muslims and who was accused of sexual harassment by more than a dozen women. She finds the win to be partially a ‘whitelash’ against a changing country as much as it was against a black president.