The Jesse M. Unruh Institute in partnership with the Political Student Assembly and the Black Student Assembly discussed President Barack Obama’s legacy and how his race and demeanor set important precedents for the current presidential election Monday night in The Forum.
The panel consisted of retired California Senator and legal expert Kevin Murray, Associate Provost for Faculty and Student Initiatives in the Social Sciences Camille Gear Rich, BSA Executive Board member Ayele Townsend and BSA member Khalil Fair. The panel was moderated by Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur and BSA member Tiaira Muhammad.
Schnur talked about how Obama’s political history led many to misunderstand his stance on issues as well as future policy decisions.
“President Obama’s strong opposition of the Iraq War from the very beginning may have led a lot of people to presume that he was a much more progressive candidate than he turned out to be,” Schnur said.
The conversation then turned to the current presidential election cycle and the differences in the 2016 election compared to Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Townsend said that both Obama’s election and the current election between Democratic presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton highlight the importance of the African-American vote and its power in elections.
“Hillary Clinton is getting a run for her money again, this time from Senator [Bernie] Sanders,” Townsend said. “It demonstrates how crucial the black vote is, however I don’t think it should be automatically assumed that black people vote Democrat or that the Democratic Party automatically gets the black vote.”
Rich agreed regarding the power of the black vote, particularly as the black vote has become one of the most committed demographics during Clinton’s campaign, but was worried about black voter turnout in this next election.
“I’m thrilled about the discussion about the African-American vote and the explicit courting of the African-American vote,” Rich said. “There is also, however, an issue of African-American voter turnout, which was about 11-13 percent for Obama, amounting to about 4 million votes which can turn an election.”
And while another milestone could be reached if Clinton wins the presidency, Rich questioned the significance of the role as the first female president to the election.
“Just [as] Obama said, ‘Being black isn’t going to color the way I’m president in a particular way,’ if electing a woman as president doesn’t give us anything in terms of difference, well then, what is the historic value in electing her?” Rich said.
A major point of discussion for the panelists was how Obama’s “coolness factor” tied into his presidency. According to Schnur, Obama’s public persona was uniquely defined by his frequent appearances on late night television, interviews with celebrities and personable manner. Fair then remembered some of the moments that he thought defined Obama’s “coolness.”
“For me, the coolest things Obama did during his presidency were going on [The Ellen DeGeneres Show] and dancing, giving the eulogy for South Carolina victims and singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and the interview where he killed a fly,” Fair said.
Rich, however, warned of praising a president based on “being cool,” as it can lead voters to oversee poor policy decisions in favor of oversimplifying a president.
“The politics of coolness is a very dangerous thing,” Rich said. “It got us Clinton who played the sax but also got us welfare reform. And when we look for coolness, we look for two things — we are looking for a way to connect with younger people and often marginalized communities which typically do ‘cooler’ stuff.”