Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?

Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?

MR. CONFIDENT VS. MR. SNIPPY: After last night’s first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, many of President Obama’s most ardent supporters are wondering why he allowed Gov. Mitt Romney to administer such an unequivocal beat down. (Photo: Newscom)

It’s been interesting today, reading and listening to all the post-debate analysis. Following what most are agreeing was an unequivocal beat down of President Obama by Mitt Romney, many are wondering, What just happened? With all of the polls leading up to the debate favoring the Obama campaign, one would think the president would’ve ridden that momentum and brought the fight to Gov. Romney.

But President Obama apparently neglected to take his urgency pills before taking the stage in Denver last night. Romney, say most pundits, was the more confident, aggressive, and prepared candidate. He won the evening.

And President Obama?

Well, let’s just say the only “hope and change” his supporters are feeling after last night’s performance is the hope that he will change his approach for the final two debates.

As you might expect, there’s a ton of postmortem chatter spilling out across the Web and blogosphere. One report at Politico, titled “How Obama’s Debate Strategy Bombed,” dissects the possible reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance:

Multiple party strategists privately attributed Obama’s demeanor to an ailment that frequently affects incumbents: a fear of appearing too aggressive and risking a larger-scale misstep that could transform the campaign. Projecting a calm, reasonable — some said “presidential” — demeanor was the strategy during Obama’s debate-prep sessions outside of Las Vegas.

But as a result, Obama allowed Romney to set the terms for much of their Wednesday night faceoff at the University of Denver. Startling his supporters, Obama did not deliver almost any of the sharpest attacks that have defined his campaign against Romney, dwelling instead on missing details from Romney’s policy proposals. The former Massachusetts governor’s private-equity background, controversial personal finances, views on social issues and recently reported comments, disparaging Americans who do not pay income taxes, went entirely unmentioned.

At AlterNet, commentator Lynn Parramore defended Obama’s approach:

Obama did what anybody paying close attention would have known he would do. He played it safe. And he stuck to a rather dull rhetorical style because — he has a rather dull rhetorical style. Also because that’s what you do when you’re the frontrunner. You don’t say or do anything wild and crazy. You let your opponent jump up and down and make excitable noises. Which is precisely what Romney did. Some have read Romney’s stance as aggressive, others as pushy, but there’s one word that you’re unlikely to hear: “presidential.” Makes for good theatrics. But it won’t win you the White House.

But Chicago Public Media blogger Achy Obejas, usually an Obama supporter, is having none of that. She admonished Obama’s constituency with this:

Obama people, stop pretending. Stop trying to find the silver lining. Drop the crap about how Mitt Romney was a condescending jerk and vague on everything. Yeah, Romney was all that. And you know what? He still spanked Barack Obama in Wednesday night’s debate. Romney was smooth, easy going, clear, ended his sentences on actual periods and just kept jabbing at the president all night long.

Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta doesn’t let Obama off the hook for his “snippy,” “downbeat” performance, but she goes deeper in diagnosing the root cause for the president’s poor showing. She writes, “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.” She goes on to add that folks expecting a late-hour reemergence of the dynamic Obama of 2008 needs to awake from their denial. This Obama, she says, is no longer the new and shiny model from 2008, nor will he ever be again. She says:

Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.

His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.

As for the president, earlier today at a Denver rally he explained the previous evening’s less-than-triumphant proceedings by suggesting Romney caught him off guard. “When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. [But] the man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions … from the last year.” Mocking Romney’s smiling declaration that he would cut funding to PBS, Obama added, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”

I’m sure Obama’s supporters are glad that he’s able to find humor in last night’s ugly affair, but one wonders why he didn’t bring some of that snark last night.

After sifting through these and other commentaries, I got into a brief email chat with UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist, who also was puzzled by the president’s flat performance. Here’s a bit of our discussion:

ED: What the heck happened last night?

WIL: President Obama was so flat with his style points during the debate, that I’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s a plan. He’s either: 1) Working a “rope-a-dope” strategy where he’ll knock Romney out later when it really counts, or  2) He was thinking too much about candlelight dinner with Michelle for their 20th wedding anniversary.

ED: My wife said the same thing about the Obamas’ anniversary, but c’mon. The president’s whole life is spent multitasking — balancing the running of the country with the mundane tasks of telling the kids to do their homework and making sure he remembers the card and flowers for the anniversary. So, I can’t buy that one. But the rope-a-dope idea has merit. I’ve got to believe he was intentionally pulling punches last night. He seems to be working some sort of strategy, but did it possibly backfire? It’s awfully close to Election Day to be taking those types of calculated risks.

WIL: If Obama’s doing the rope-a-dope strategy, his aim is to strike fear in his Democratic base so that they’ll realize this election won’t be a cakewalk by any means. Democrats became lax in the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party-led GOP dominated. So the implicit message to the base is probably “Wake up, stand up, and get out the vote, like you did in 2008! Romney-Ryan is a stronger ticket than McCain-Palin. I need your help!”

ED: So, do you see him rebounding in round two, or is this the Obama we get now?

WIL: I think Obama will drop all of the obvious power punches (47 percent, flip-flopper, etc.) on Romney in the next two debates, but he will still need a strong voter turnout to win. On the other hand, if the Prez was distracted last night and thinking about Michele … well, as a married guy I can’t blame him. However, Michelle will always be his first lady. If he’s not careful, she won’t be ours much longer.

Much more will be said about last night between now and the next debate. And once the new round of poll numbers starts appearing, the pundits will have even more fodder with which to fill their cable news segments. But, if nothing else, last night’s debate should remind us of one thing: nothing is decided until the polls close on the evening of Nov. 6.

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Is the Black Church Misapplying Its Power?

Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.

Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.

The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.

PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)

The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.

Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue.  “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”

The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.

The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.

The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer.  “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said.  “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”

So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.

Obama Lets Others Outshine Him in Charlotte

Obama Lets Others Outshine Him in Charlotte

SHREWDLY CELEBRATING: President Barack Obama shrewdly let his wife Michelle shine at the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Newscom)

Democrats nominated President Barack Obama for a second term at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, but the consensus among pundits was that his wife Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton outshone him in their speeches. Was his by design a more modest speech than those he delivered in 2008 to reflect the chastening of the economic crisis that has defined his tenure? It sure seemed so, as he compared himself to Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt and quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go”?

Speaking of nowhere to go but God, there was a tussle Wednesday afternoon over the fact that the word God initially didn’t appear in the Democratic platform this year. A line about Jerusalem being the perpetual capital of Israel disappeared as well. Just before Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie prayed the invocation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to ask three times for a floor vote to amend the platform to reinsert these references. Then, Villaraigosa clearly overrode a divided final vote to affirm the changes, which gave the Democrats their own Clint Eastwood moment.

Plenty of speakers talked about God, however, including United Methodist pastor and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missiouri), who went off-script Wednesday and began preaching a passionate mini-sermon. “Hope is the motivation that empowers the unemployed. … It is our hope and faith that moves us to action,” Cleaver shouted. “As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, Mr. President, hope on!”

Speaking of shouting, the convention opened with a lot of that Tuesday, most notably from Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker. “It is our most fundamental national aspiration – that no matter who you are, no matter what your color, creed, how you choose to pray or whom you choose to love, that if you are an American — first generation or fifth– one who is willing to work hard, play by the rules, and apply your God-given talents, that you should be able to find a job that pays the bills,” Booker yelled as he introduced the party platform.

As to the platform itself, support for same-sex marriage was included for the first time and language about keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare” is gone. The drumbeat championing “choice” over Republican oppression of women’s bodies resounded from the first speaker to the last. Juliet Lapidos of The New York Times noticed and so did Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for The National Catholic Reporter. In a column at CNN, Winters said the Obama campaign has given up on courting moderate, white, working class voters who are primarily concerned about the economy. Instead he is “re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve.” Even Comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show produced a bit about the party of inclusion not being so inclusive when it comes to gun-toting, God-fearing, anti-science Evangelicals.

New York City pastor and councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) told CBN News that he was at the convention to debate the platform change regarding same-sex marriage. “I see myself as a reformer, and I’m hoping that we can put enough pressure (on the party),” Cabrera said. Other Christians were there to offer non-partisan prayers. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzieRev. Gabriel Salguero, and Blood:Water Mission founder Jena Lee Nardella were among those offering a sweet aroma of prayer amidst the partisan preaching. And Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus delivered a short but impassioned speech about the potential dangers of Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “immoral budget” and why “our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”

As to those stunning speeches delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s was notable for its passion and clarity and for the heart-warming story of the Obamas’ humble beginnings, but also for the fact that Mrs. Obama’s autobiography excluded any mention of her ever having held a job. Instead she described herself as “Mom-in-Chief.” Clinton’s was widely regarded as being so far above others in its rhetorical skill and specificity that even right-leaning pundits conceded he gave Obama the boost he needed, which brings me back to my original point, and that is that the president may not be Bill Clinton, but he is a shrewd politician nonetheless. Just ask Hillary.

What do you think?

What were the high points and low points of the Democrats’ big party?

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

NO LOOKING BACK: Democratic delegates and supporters waved “Forward” placards at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Newscom)

The contrast in diversity was striking on the screen.

The sea of red, yellow, white, black, and brown faces at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night compared to the sea of white with black and brown specks at the Republican event last week in Tampa. It’s like watching color TV vs. black and white.

But is it really?

Nowadays we talk about red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) as code for conservative and liberal, but as the Democrats take their turn this week and re-nominate the first African American POTUS, I wonder how many black Democrats know their party’s history is much redder than the GOP when it comes to black people and other minorities. In fact, the DNC’s founding fathers would be red with rage that Barack Obama is the party’s leader.

You certainly wouldn’t know this by viewing the DNC’s website on your computer. The opening paragraph of the African American section reads:

“For decades, Democrats have stood with the African American community in the struggle for equality and the enduring struggle to perfect our nation itself.”

Really?

The section about the party’s history reeks with campaign spin:

“For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union.”

This is followed by a timeline with the entry being 1920.

C’mon now. Your official founding date is 1792, making the Democrats the nation’s oldest political party, yet your timeline begins in 1920? Is it because you are also the party of President Andrew Jackson that promoted the bloody takeover of Indian lands and the expansion of slavery? Is it because you are the party of President Andrew Johnson, the Confederate who during Reconstruction championed laws leading to Jim Crow that re-shackled black freedom for decades after the Civil War?

I was reared in a Democratic household in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were union loyalists. My initial DNC history reached only as far as FDR and the New Deal. But as I came of voting age I sought the backstory for myself. In a word, it is racist.

The party of Obama had for centuries championed a laundry list of oppressive policies that have led to the tragic disparities and the areas of health, wealth, education, housing, and incarceration rates that continue to plague the African American community today. However, that revelation then didn’t stop me from voting my interest such as, helping David Dinkins to become New York’s first black mayor in 1990.

The truth before 1920 and after is easily accessible via several legit Web sites. Of course Republicans pointed this out themselves in 2008, no doubt as a way of throwing stones at then-Sen. Obama’s magical run for the White House.

What’s curious is why the DNC doesn’t openly embrace its full history — that the party that once championed slavery has produced the nation’s first African American president. Wouldn’t that show how far the party has led nation, though there’s still a ways to go? Wouldn’t that illustrate “change we can believe in,” and progress “forward?” Wouldn’t that show respect for blacks, a constituency that is supposed to be highly valued?  DNC leadership obviously decided on the history revision. Where are the black Democratic leaders on this? Where are the whites who are supposed to be progressive?

For me, it shows that both parties share a common problematic history on the issue of race. One doesn’t want to hear about it, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. This hasn’t changed much over the years. People have just switched sides and traded names.

Real change would be seeing a sea of colorful faces at both conventions, and two parties focused on meaningful policies rather than spin. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though.

But then again, I said the same about a black man becoming President of the United States.

Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission

Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrate the Aug. 6 landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet Mars. (Photo: NASA)

On August 6, when the Mars rover Curiosity managed a text-book landing on the red planet, I was as thrilled and enthralled as anyone else who watched the tension in that NASA control room transform into unrestrained joy once the engineers realized that their project was a success. For me, though, watching the jubilation in that room was also bittersweet. As an American I felt the pride and amazement of this great accomplishment in space, but as an African American I was stung by the lack of black faces celebrating in the NASA control room.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees has been declining nationwide, but it’s particularly alarming for blacks. African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 2009 received only “7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Education, of course, goes hand in hand with our economic wellbeing. With black unemployment twice as high as that of whites, pursuing STEM careers is an opportunity that could dramatically improve black life for generations to come.

The black church should use its influence to awaken parents and encourage young people to pursue STEM education. In addition to the economic benefit, STEM fields are about the study of God’s creations — the universe, the Earth, and all life forms. Emphasizing STEM in this context at church and the community could channel the natural curiosities of young people in a positive direction. It could help them to see and experience God not as some elusive being beyond the clouds but as a deeper, loving ever-present Spirit who is concerned about their everyday lives.

WELL DONE: On Aug. 13, President Obama made a special phone call to congratulate NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover team. (Photo: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

If a kid in the ’hood or the ’burbs can master the physics required to consistently shoot a rubber sphere into a 10-foot-high cylinder or mix and sync the sonic wavelengths of hip-hop beats to precision, they also can achieve in math and science classes. STEM is at the root.

As a youth growing up in the late 1970s, my curiosity in God was actually stirred more by watching reruns of the original Star Trek than sitting in wooden pews enduring long, dry, abstract sermons. Star Trek offered many lessons about how science could be used to help solve human problems and lead us to a better understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. Star Trek also depicted blacks as intelligent leaders rather than the buffoons I often saw on other TV shows. (As an aside, some years ago I met Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lieutenant Uhura, at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that as a youth I was in love with her because she tucked me in bed most nights as I fell asleep after watching Star Trek. She laughed and gave me a big hug.)

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes was “The Ultimate Computer.” Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black man (actor William Marshall), developed the M5 Multitronic Unit, a computer designed to run a 430-crew starship with just 20 crewmembers. The M5 was to replace a commander, such as Captain James T. Kirk. Humans would no longer die at war but could channel their intellect and spirit toward higher pursuits.

M5 thought like a human because Daystrom had implanted M5 with his own human neural engrams. It was tested under a war games scenario, while Kirk sat at the helm observing. After performing flawlessly, M5 hit a glitch and ended up blasting other starships, killing crew members. Daystrom experienced a mental breakdown while trying to talk M5 out of committing more murders. Eventually Kirk reasoned with M5 by appealing to its (Daystrom’s) sense of guilt. M5 tells Kirk, “Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God,” and concludes that it must die for its sins. Even the computer understood God’s authority and submitted.

The outcome was unfortunate for Daystrom, but this 1968 episode revealed something extremely inspiring about the overall Star Trek series: Daystrom, a genius, was responsible for the design of ALL of the starship computers throughout the entire fleet. Imagine that — a black man!

The black imprint in space travel is not science fiction. From Benjamin Baneker, the first African American astronomer, to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black man in space, to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, African Americans have a long and strong legacy. And though it may not have been visually present in that jubilant NASA control room, it was there: NASA’s current leader, Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden, Jr., is African American.

Editor’s Note: For more information on ways of encouraging student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, check out this report, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates,” from the Business-Higher Education Forum.