If you only read short summaries of President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University, you probably missed the thrust of his remarks, which was an extended argument against the political far left. With the exception of a handful of digressions and jokes, this case formed the spine of his remarks, which mounted a detailed defense of his political style combined with a rebuttal of his critics on the left. Only Obama knows…
- The world has grown more fair and prosperous over the course of his adult life, especially in its racial equality. “America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college,” he began, repeating the line for emphasis. Dismissing the straw man of a “post-racial society,” an unrealistic expectation Obama noted he had never promised, he emphasized that opportunities for African-Americans have expanded across society:
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant — at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time — he owns the team. (Laughter.) When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. (Laughter.) Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. (Laughter.) We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States.
Obama lays out the predicate in detail, because it’s the most important premise of his argument. Bernie Sanders has argued that “it’s too late for Establishment politics” — that progress is too meager to be worth continuing, and that a radical new course, a metaphorical “revolution,” is required to truly make a difference. Though he wouldn’t embrace a loaded term, Obama is making the case that the dreaded “Establishment politics” is working.
2. Political change is necessarily incremental. Not only is incremental progress working, but there is no other alternative. Obama cited the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation as imperfect political compromises. “They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule,” but they made the world better. The belief that compromise is immoral leads to distrust of the political mechanisms that actually can produce positive change, making those systems less effective as people lose hope in them:
If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. Since when has this politician ever been close to compromise?