The President's Report Card

Obama earns high marks for his administration's work on civil rights issues.
By Kenneth J. Cooper

THE NATION’S FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT, who glided into office in part on his skillfulness as an orator, has offered no moments of soaring speech- making when he sounded like Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson, espousing the American doctrine of equal rights with verve or verse. Some prominent African Americans criticize President Barack Obama for not stepping to the ample bully pulpit of the White House to preach the gospel of civil rights under law, for all.

Because every public word a president utters is duly recorded, that Obama has not done so is undisputed. The relative significance of his reticence is. African American leaders whose job it is to protect and extend civil rights protections argue that it is less important than his critics maintain.

In evaluating Obama’s first term, those lead- ers praise his administration for the restoration of federal civil rights enforcement, which the administration of George W. Bush had starved of staff and funding. Some suggest that Obama’s critics make the mistake of supposing he should act as the chief advocate or community organizer-in-chief who attempts to govern by making state- ments, rather than the chief executive and commander-in-chief who gets things done by maneuvering the levers of his constitutional powers. “We’ve accomplished quite a bit working with and through this administration on the NAACP’s agenda,” says Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau and its senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Shelton has told administration officials he does wish they would talk more about those accomplishments. “I’ve said this to them: ‘You’re doing a great job of moving along a civil rights agenda that’s supported by the NAACP. You’re doing an awful job talking about it, an awful job.’”

Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also extols the administration’s record, while dismissing the criticism on practical grounds.

“I think the first half of Obama’s tenure has many exam- ples of significant civil and human rights accomplishments that are worth noting,” Henderson says. “I don’t join those who criticize him for not talking enough about issues of race and poverty. I think that in the current atmosphere, those statements and well-intentioned efforts would be used against him in a highly politicized way.”

Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, sounds similar notes in assessing the Obama administration’s record.

“I think his administration has done a very good job in terms of civil rights enforcement, particularly in the areas that we focus on, which are employment and equal educational opportunity,” Wilcher concludes. “While the president might not be on the stump talking about the benefits of affirmative action every day, I judge an administration by what it does. I am pleased with the effort, notwithstanding this economy, to give civil rights agencies the resources that they possibly can.”

So what has the Obama administration done on civil rights issues? From Shelton, Henderson and Wilcher, the accomplishments pour forth, their lists overlapping a fair amount.

Seven major legislative achievements date to Obama’s first two years in office, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.


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