Freedom Rider: Obama has the power

“The concerns of black America never make it to the negotiating table because no demands are ever made.”

One of the worst, most discredited arguments of the hapless Obama lover is that those who dare criticize him should realize that he just can’t do very much. They whine and wail that this shrewdest of all politicians has been hamstrung by his opponents. “He can’t do everything,” they say. “He has to be president of all the people,” is another argument (aimed exclusively at black people who dare ask what he has done for them lately).

The arguments are nonsensical and insulting to anyone‘s intelligence. The presidency is a very powerful office and it didn’t lose any of its juice when Barack Obama was inaugurated. He proved as much himself when he used the power of a presidential executive action to end the deportations of undocumented young people who arrived in the United States as children.

Immigration has been a lightning rod issue among the Republican Tea Party crowd, which has made it impossible to pass any legislation. Long gone are the days when Republicans like Ronald Reagan would pass comprehensive legislation addressing the issue of undocumented workers. As a result, the Dream Act, which would have legalized the status of young undocumented adults, has been dead in the water.

“The presidency is a very powerful office and it didn’t lose any of its juice when Barack Obama was inaugurated.”

Despite the excuses made by his fervent supporters, the president decisively acted on his own on this aspect of the immigration debate. Without any congressional authority, the Department of Homeland Security issued an executive directive which stopped the deportations of undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who were brought to this country as children. Obama may have made the right decision but he shouldn’t get very much credit for carrying it out. This administration has set deportation records, 400,000 last year, well above Bush administration numbers.

Immigration detention is an earnings leader in the for-profit prison system, and Obama had no interest in touching it. He took this action because he needed to if he wanted to stay in office. The Latino vote is up for grabs, in part because of the record setting number of deportations which this administration has carried out. Nothing gets a politician to see the light like the fear of electoral defeat, and this change in policy proves it.

It also proved that Obama can act forcefully for anything that is important to him if he so chooses. This is not the first time that he has acted on behalf of a group he wanted to keep in his column. Gay rights is an important issue for white liberals of all orientations, and as a result the military’s don’t ask don’t tell policy is now history. Vice President Biden may have led the president to see the light on marriage equality, but the president eagerly seized on it and energized a key constituency in the process. The annual AIPAC conference is a festival of pro-Israeli genuflecting and no one doubts whether American policy will march in lock step with the Israeli government’s.

“He took this action because he needed to if he wanted to stay in office.”

As for the concerns of black America, they never make it to the negotiating table because no demands are ever made. Obama never takes a risk to help black people but then again why should he? Why would he take political risks for people who argue against their own interests and make his success more important than their very survival?

If Obama does nothing for black people it is in part because he isn’t inclined to do it and also because he pays no political price when he gives black Americans the back of his hand. The president has many tools at his disposal if he faces congressional resistance and the deportation policy change is but one example.

Executive orders could be used to change policies on incarceration, or address the foreclosure crisis, or bring federal dollars to economically devastated communities. Of course the president could address all of these issues in any way that he wanted. It is curious that a man universally thought of as smart is suddenly found intellectually wanting when issues involving black America are ever discussed.

The victories won by other groups have not gone unnoticed and the deportation decision is seen for what it is, an act of electoral desperation. If there is a similar action taken on behalf of black people between now and November, we will know that the president is even more desperate. Ironically, should he lose, the failure to energize his most loyal supporters will be the reason. Obama will have no one else to blame if he watches Mitt Romney being sworn into office in January. On the other hand, defeat couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

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