Sizing up the U.S. Presidents, from Nixon to Obama
By Julianne Malveaux
When I was 16 years old, I went to get a passport. Why? Richard Nixon had been elected president, and I was sure that he would impose such oppression that I might need to get out of the country. Never mind that I didn’t have two quarters to rub together and was under such parental supervision that I might not have made it to the corner without being hit upside the head. I used my own little babysitting money to obtain that passport because I felt that our nation was changing. In retrospect, Nixon wasn’t that bad. He actually did a few things to jump start minority business development, including signing an executive order that spoke to economic justice.
I appreciated President Jimmy Carter, but he was torpedoed by Iran. I actually spent a minute as a junior staffer in Carter’s Council of Economic Advisors while a graduate student at MIT. I was disappointed that Carter did not win in 1980, and was again apprehensive when Ronald Reagan became our president. The ways that he described people who received public assistance, combined with his miserable record as governor of California, suggested that he would not be kind to the least and the left out.
Indeed, overall unemployment exceeded 10 percent under Reagan’s leadership, but he was very popular for his ability to influence public opinion. His terms were marred by the Iran-contra scandal, and in the name of deregulation, he implicitly dismantled or weakened several federal agencies. Yet, some will point to his support of HBCUs, his uncomfortable visits to Howard and Hampton universities, where he expected protests but showed up anyway. With that, in retrospect, Reagan might have had minor redeeming social value to the African American community, but from my perch he was repressive.
Then there was George Herbert Walker Bush, the president whose aching unfamiliarity with the lives or ordinary people bit him in his hind parts in the 1992 election. Bush wasn’t awful to African American people. I think the worst thing he did was appoint Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, describing an ordinary jurist as the best he could find, and raising issues of race, gender and cultural loyalty at the same time. Lots of prominent African Americans supported Thomas because he was Black, only to learn that this damaged man thought that a prison guard who broke a prisoner’s dental plate in his mouth did not inflict cruel and unusual punishment.
President William Jefferson Clinton was amazingly effective. African American unemployment rates dropped to 7 percent or so. The economy grew. African Americans thought they had a friend, even though Clinton’s welfare deform was controversial and, from my perspective, marred his legacy. Whatever you say about Bill Clinton, he left our country better than he found it. He made brilliant appointments of African American leaders, including naming Hazel O’Leary Secretary of Energy and Mike Espy Secretary of Agriculture, not your usual Cabinet positions for Africa Americans. While flawed in many ways, the Clinton years are years to be celebrated.
But not the years of the man the late Molly Ivins called Shrub, as in Baby Bush. This man stole an election and then mumbled and stumbled his way though his first term, suggesting that consumerism would save us from the economic draught engendered by Sept. 11. Give me a break! Still, Baby Bush won a second term, and continued to wreak havoc on our economy, cutting taxes on the wealthy, burdening the poor and the middle class. Bush also decided to give bankers a break and a bailout. He presided over the greatest giveaway from our nation’s poorest people to the wealthy when he decided that banks that ripped us off should get a break.
Why this walk down memory lane? Because President Obama’s work is being questioned and his achievements of four years put on the line. This president deserves re-election, and every able bodied progressive should set out to dedicate themselves to making that happen. No, he hasn’t done everything we’d like, but he has done more than John McCain would have done, more than we can ever expect Mitt Romney to do. The polls are saying this thing is neck in neck, and conservative commentators are saying that Obama must go. Rather than sing “We Shall Overcome” the day after this election, we ought to sing “I Shall Not Be Moved” before it.
But here is the bottom line: We are singing the same old song. We African Americans never get everything we need from elected officials. Let’s reelect President Obama, but let’s also decide to get our acts together to work independently from elective politics to attain social and economic justice. Otherwise, we are in the same old space, with a different meaning whatever we face. We have survived and, we will thrive, if we take our destiny into our own hands.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.