Though he is just two months in office, Barack Obama’s election raises some interesting questions concerning the future of American politics in the post-Obama era. His election in November 2008 was a seminal moment in American politics and the nation’s history. As the first Black American to make it to the White House, Barack Obama ran the last leg of a race that had its roots in the Reconstruction era when Black politicians first won election to state and federal office. The journey included several memorable efforts by Blacks to influence the country’s consciousness to accept the eventuality that an African American could be president. Starting with Rev. Channing Phillips’s “favorite son” candidacy in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention and the historic candidacies of Rep. Shirley Chisholm and Rev. Jesse Jackson, it was never really a question of if a Black would be elected President, given the many trailblazing accomplishments of African Americans, but a question of whom.
Now, that Barack Obama has broken the presidential barrier, the reality is that the magic of the “first” Black president will give way to the political reality of the inherent difficulties in electing the second. Fair or not, the tenure of Barack Obama will have a lot to do with the opportunity to elect another Black person to the presidency. If successful, President Obama will likely wipe away the negative perceptions, voiced or silent, of Black’s leadership potential and smooth the path of the next African American to seek the White House. Even if the individual does not have the same pedigree of Mr. Obama, she or he will gain some of the residual benefit and good will of a successful Obama administration. On the other hand, if Mr. Obama stumbles along the way or his administration falters, there is a strong possibility that the next Black to run for President will face an uphill climb.
If we assume that Mr. Obama is successful, and serves two terms in office, the most likely scenario is that Vice President Joe Biden would try to succeed him. It would be 2016. By then Mr. Biden will be 74 years old. Given that it would be an “open” seat, the field of candidates could include several Black candidates or none at all. The irony is that despite the celebration of Mr. Obama’s victory, it was wholly unexpected and his ascension to national prominence unexpected. When looking at the “farm team” the ranks are thin. There are only two Black governors currently in office and one Senator, who may or may not survive his current troubles. Though the number of Blacks serving in the House of Representatives has grown considerably, the political “distance” between the lower chamber of Congress and the White House is enormous.
If you scan the state legislative landscape, there are hundreds of talented and savvy Black elected officials but they must first find a way to get elected to higher office if they are to one day be considered a legitimate contender for the presidency. State legislatures are great places to learn the ropes of the legislative process and receive hands on training that could prove useful if considering a run for Congress. They also can be isolating and provide little opportunity to display one’s talents and potential. Success notwithstanding, state legislators’ view of the White House is from afar.
The next likely source of candidates is the City Hall of some of our cities but even there the pickings are slim. Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C. and Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey have received a lot of media attention but both have some dues to pay and need to move up the political ladder to be taken seriously as presidential material. Atlanta’s Shirley Franklin is nearing the end of her mayoralty and Baltimore’s Sheila Dixon has to overcome some immediate challenges stemming from an investigation. In Philadelphia, the jury is still out on Michael Nutter as he works to navigate the city’s fiscal crisis.
We do have some experiences to guide us in the future. In a number of cities in the 1970’s and 1980’s a good number of Blacks swept into office as mayors. Whether Newark, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore or Detroit, these cities experienced a “second wave” of Black office holders with mixed results. Unfortunately, the individuals elected after the first “pioneers” often took over cities rife with problems and mere shells of what they were at the height of U.S. industrial power. As a result, the second Black mayor often ran head first into rising public anger, declining resources, and cynicism over the ability of government to address critical issues. Unlike their predecessors, the second Black mayors did not have the benefit of the euphoria that is often present when there is a sense that history is in the making. The second time around is often less inspirational and the electorate tougher to motivate. The individuals who served as the second Black mayors in their cities often also lost the goodwill of the media and faced greater scrutiny than their predecessors. In much the same way, the individuals who come behind Barack Obama will be similarly challenged.
It is not a pretty picture. The pool of possible candidates is shallow. Many of the individuals in office today might not be there in 2016 or beyond. There is a possibility that someone will emerge unexpectedly, similar to the current President or an individual outside of the political arena could surface as a contender. What is certain is that electing the “second” will present its own unique set of challenges, not the least being determining who will be the candidate.