Les Payne, a former Newsday editor and columnist, is one of the founders of the Trotter Group.
The 44th U.S. president sat steepling his fingers before "View of the City of Washington," the 1856 painting by William MacLeod, as he fielded questions in the Roosevelt Room from 10 African-American columnists from the Trotter Group. The organization was named for William Monroe Trotter, the Boston newspaperman who President Woodrow Wilson dismissed abruptly from a White House visit in 1914, for daring to challenge the chief executive's support for racial segregation.
A visibly weary President Barack Obama, flag pin in place, stipulated to our group that after 21 crushing months, he was satisfied that many of his campaign promises had been accomplished, and under unimaginably adverse circumstances. I noted that the president was batting about .700 on specific items that, as a candidate, Obama had raised with our group in 2007 - including the promise to have us at the White House.
There was passage of the historic health care bill; financial regulatory reform; tax cuts under the Recovery Act; and such largely overlooked legislation as student-loan and credit-card reform, anti-tobacco bills, increased investment for clean energy, and moves to prevent housing and mortgage fraud.
As for other issues he raised with us three years ago and has since addressed, there were having his Federal Communications Commission chairman revisit the issue of diversity in media ownership, curtailing the Iraq war, and his signing of the Fair Sentencing Act, which struck down mandatory prison terms for drug convictions, and narrowed the racially tainted, disparate penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses by 82 percent.
I asked the president if he was satisfied that his top military brass - which Bob Woodward wrote in his latest book never answered his request for an Afghanistan exit strategy - accepts his withdrawal plan. Showing a steel spine supporters claim he lacks, Obama laid down plans dictating war policy to a suspect military - as the U.S. Constitution demands.
"I made a series of decisions," Obama said, insisting, "we were [not] going to stay there in some open-ended enterprise." Instead of confirming that his top brass "accepts" his exit strategy, the president stated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all "understand very clearly." The difference between "accept" and "understand" wouldn't be worth considering - except that here it concerns military leaders being discussed by a commander-in-chief who, unlike his predecessor, uses words very precisely.
"Unemployment is 9.5 percent," he said. "We've gone through the worst . . . overall economic crisis since the Great Depression. What's remarkable is how well that coalition has held together . . . primarily because people understand how we inherited a set of problems that defy quick and easy solutions."
Not surprisingly, the media haven't connected the dots on just how steadily many white Americans have opposed Obama from the very beginning. CBS analysts cited that some 55 percent of white people polled "disapprove" of the president's job performance, without noting that this is the exact same percentage of white Americans who voted for Sen. John McCain, according to CNN's exit polls on Election Day 2008.
When we pressed, Obama was unwilling to factor in racism as a key ingredient that accounts for, say, the rise of the tea party. "I think it's important not to see race behind every disagreement with me," said Obama, who proceeded not to see it behind any such dispute.
The real problem Democrats face Tuesday is that Obama's base supporters - including young white people - view this year's local elections for what they are: contests where Democrats are fielding largely uninspiring, and in some cases unsavory candidates, against Reagan-era Republicans, mixed with a reactionary tea party that has resorted to sending in the clowns.
"If this election is framed simply as a referendum on whether people are satisfied with how things are right now," Obama said, "then obviously none of us are satisfied and we'd lose votes. If the election is posed as a choice between Republican policies that got us into this mess and President Obama's policies that are getting us out of this mess, then I think we can do very well."
We'll see what Tuesday brings.