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Malik Pitchford of Milwaukee is a journalist and student at DePaul University studying political science and the African and Black diaspora. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine.
Barack Obama has spent the past several months promoting his political memoir, “A Promised Land.” But the former president’s messaging is out of touch, tone-deaf and indicative of his personal and class interests.
I’m Black and 20 years old. I wasn’t able to vote in either of Obama’s presidential elections, but I can see his appeal today. In his television, radio and online appearances, Obama exudes presidential charm, while pushing narratives of respectability. This is unlike the ideals of “hope,” “change” and “progress” that he ran on in 2008.
But let’s not forget how Obama chastised former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the “pain” he caused others in taking a knee during the national anthem. And, more recently, the NBA rejoiced when Obama urged the Milwaukee Bucks to call off their strike protesting the Jacob Blake shooting.
Obama also showed how out-of-touch he is with young progressives in a Dec. 2 Snapchat interview. “Socialism is still a loaded term for some folks,” he clucked. “We should focus on talking about getting certain things done.”
The truth is that, among young American adults, socialism is as popular an ideology as free-market capitalism, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Maybe labels and ideology aren’t all that important. After all, voters in Florida — which went for Donald Trump — supported raising the state’s minimum wage to $15, an issue Biden ran on.
In Obama’s recent Breakfast Club appearance, host Charlamagne tha God read an excerpt from “A Promised Land.” He asked if Obama felt it was still necessary, still, to soften “blunt truths” about racism in America, for white people’s benefit. Obama didn’t answer directly.
Instead, mentioning polling after the murder of George Floyd, Obama said, “Many more white Americans were willing to acknowledge problems in the criminal justice system based on race.” He said Black people need to build “coalitions” to win votes, and, “as a consequence,” must “pay attention to how other folks are feeling.”
Obama has often lectured others against “snappy slogans” like “defund the police,” arising in response to decades of anti-Black policing. He’s told Black communities that he does not like our tone in how we call for safe communities — via divesting from policing and investing in Black communities — because it isn’t marketable to others.
Polling does show that support for defunding the police is low, but polling does not accurately measure opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement’s concrete goals. Regardless, calls to “defund the police” were never supposed to be a political line for Democrats to run on. Yet Democrats increased their voter registration in light of BLM protests.
It’s clear Obama and Democrats don’t want to jeopardize white suburban and rural support. This year, Democrats performed better with both white men (with and without degrees), and college graduate white women, compared to 2016.
And though Democrats took white voters from Trump, it was at the expense of voters of color, including Black people. With the exception of a handful of battleground states, the Democrats underperformed in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities throughout the country.
Barack Obama’s book tour is just that, a book tour. Treating him as a thought leader for young people, or as the last “cool” president, is incorrect. His politics have always been that of a cautious centrist. His support for reforming broken systems, rather than the “yes we can” attitude he fostered in 2008, makes him an inspiration best left in the past.