- President Obama (file photo)
"And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt."
—President Barack Obama
President Obama spoke those words last Friday immediately following the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring "that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter." But they could have also been spoken about the flurry of actions to remove the Confederate battle flag from public spaces across the South and the placing of all such symbols on the defensive. Or they could have been said about a Supreme Court decision one day earlier that cements the Affordable Care Act in the nation's public policy landscape. It was a week of "thunderbolts" all fueled in ways large and small by Obama and his presidency.
For decades, presidents and citizens alike have fought for a wholesale expansion of health care access in the United States. For decades, both black and white advocates have worked to remove the symbols that make many feel like foreigners in their native South and, in the eyes of many, foster ongoing race-based violence. And, for decades, gay and lesbian individuals have built a civil rights movement focused on weaving LGBT citizens into the American tapestry. In each case, to quote Obama, progress has shown itself "in small increments. Sometimes two steps forward, one step back, compelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens." The president is correct that the ongoing engagement of rank-and-file citizens is vital for lasting social and political change. However, in his speech Friday, he undersold the role a president who is in step with "political time" (to employ a phrase used by scholar of presidential leadership Stephen Skowronek) can play in locking in such change. Obama was central to progress in each area, using a combination of presidential powers: the rhetorical power to create a fertile soil in which change can grow, power in the legislative arena, executive orders, and power over appointments (especially to the Supreme Court).
Across the three topics, of course, the mix of powers employed by Obama in the pursuit of change has differed. On LGBT rights, the president's role has been multifaceted, employing rhetoric (especially his 2012 interview in which he explained his final "evolution" on the topic); legislative efforts (especially ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in late 2010); key executive orders (including antidiscrimination measures for federal contractors); and court appointees who showed the smarts not to push Justice Anthony Kennedy too far or too fast on the issue. The messy battle over Obamacare shows how much influence a president can have in playing defense once legislative change is made, giving the measure time to become more popular and more consequential in people's lives. On race, in addition to the appointment of an array of persons of color to high-level positions, Obama has been limited to symbolic and rhetorical power. While he and his family mark the personification of racial progress, as many have noted, he has most often not lived up to the promise shown in candidate Obama's "A More Perfect Union" — delivered in March 2008 in the midst of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle — that still represents one of the most thoughtful contemporary analyses of race in America. But, in the aftermath of the horrific violence at Charleston's Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the "grace"-filled expressions afterward by family members of those killed, Obama's unique position to talk about the persistence of racism in America was reignited and helped place pressure on state officials and corporate executives to act on symbols that many see as about hate rather than heritage.
In all three areas, much work remains to be done. As Obama said in his interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast: "The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination" casts "a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on." (And, it is increasingly clear, that Obama intends to use his post-presidential years to focus on the challenges facing young black men, including the ongoing threat of gun violence.) Until states fully embrace Medicaid expansion (and, it will be years, as Arizona did not become part of the original Medicaid program until 1982), uninsured rates will be significant in many parts of the country. And, the continued discrimination allowed against LGBT individuals in the workplace, housing and other aspects of public life through the absence of comprehensive federal legislation means that, in many places, gays and lesbians literally can be married one day and fired the next. The generational dynamics on all three issues, however, indicate that the youngest voters are most supportive of the president's perspective, boding well for the possibility of more progress.
From his WTF interview to his extraordinary Friday eulogy of Pastor Clementa Pinckney and the others killed at Mother Emanuel, it is hard to remember a week in which a president controlled the tenor and content of the news cycles across a variety of topics as did Obama. It shows how, six-and-a-half years into his administration, it is now Obama's America in ways large and small. Elections have consequences, although those consequences often take years to percolate. Then they arrive like a thunderbolt.