I think I ought to at least explain what I’m thinking about with this comparison. It’s driven more by a subjective political sensation than by any grounded analysis, and it may actually be an utterly worthless comparison. I don’t know enough about Dinkins’s mayoralty to write a well-rounded post on this subject, even though I was living in New York City for its last two years, and voted for Ruth Messinger against Giuliani at the end of Dinkins’s term. But rather than do a quick shoddy job of web-surfing to try and pass myself off as knowing something about NYC politics during those years, I’d rather just describe the very sketchy shape of the comparison I was thinking about, and see whether those who do know a lot about NYC political history can set me straight.
David Dinkins was a universally respected politician widely seen as smart, competent and a good conciliator, if somewhat uninspiring. (There’s the first point of sharp dissimilarity with Obama.) He was congenial to white liberals, and brought along the black and hispanic votes largely out of solidarity. The simple prospect of having New York’s first black mayor generated a fair amount of voter enthusiasm.
However, that enthusiasm was not attached to a strong agenda, and once in office, like any Democrat in New York City (or anywhere else), Dinkins found himself tied down like Gulliver to a million tiny cross-cutting interest groups and points of ideological dogma, not to mention Democrats’ habitual enthusiasm for circular firing squads. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a Democrat in Gracie Mansion was immobilized. He couldn’t cross the teachers. He couldn’t cross the school boards. He couldn’t cross the sanitation workers’ or transit workers’ unions. He couldn’t override the delicate sensibilities of neighborhood historical preservation boards and other NIMBY-enforcing associations. He tried to bring the city a grudging racial peace, after the years of Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach and “wilding” (which may or may not ever have taken place). But he proved unable to tame the tensions that flared during the Crown Heights riots. And he had the bad luck to preside over a vicious recession that gave the city an air of defeat.
Meanwhile, Dinkins never really got the benefit of the doubt from the conservative white neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, who had become accustomed to a white, ethnic image of New York under Ed Koch. They treated his mayoralty as though they were living under enemy occupation, as a betrayal of their image of what New York-ness was. New York, to them, was not Spike Lee or Run-DMC. New York was Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra. They heard Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic” speech as a repudiation of the melting-pot ethic that underpinned their own narratives of immigrant Americanization.
So the first chance they got, they put somebody into office who brought back Ed Koch’s accent, but with a more punitive attitude. And while much of what Rudy Giulani accomplished was due to luck (the strong economy, the continuation of the fall in violent crime that began under Dinkins), the overwhelming sensation was that a Republican with the backing of the police, Wall Street, and the yuppie elite could generate momentum in overwhelmingly Democratic New York that no Democrat ever could. This political sensation has continued under Bloomberg.
In many ways, this comparison reveals how little Dinkins has in common with Obama. The racial politics of 2008-10 are very different from those of the early ’90s. Identity politics is dead. Sister Souljah has no army. Barack Obama himself personifies an easy grace with mixed racial identity that renders the mosaic-vs-melting-pot debates of 1990 antique. 2008 in America, unlike 1989 in New York, was a moment of remarkably low racial tension. New York elected a black mayor in 1989 in part because it needed a racial peacemaker; America was able to elect a black president in 2008 in large measure because racial conflict was not on the immediate agenda.
Then, of course, there’s Obama himself. He is inspirational. He has a style all his own. He is a personality, a celebrity. He can be electrifying on television. He’s an analytical thinker and a manager with a professorial gift for expressing complex processes in clear, conversational terms. Dinkins was none of these.
The similarity lies in the sense that Obama was swept into office on a wave of personal enthusiasm insufficiently attached to an agenda, and that he’s now bogging down in a characteristically Democratic muck of dissension and squabbling. My anxiety is that Obama, like Dinkins, is a cool, friendly conciliator who was elected by a deeply divided community in the hope that he could bring it together. But both of them have been smacked with insurmountable economic problems that have denied them the resources they need to make reconciliation work. And as the community relapses into vicious squabbling, it blames the conciliator for its own failures. That’s the mess I’m afraid Obama may get stuck in.
Add: I realize I’ve failed to communicate here that Barack Obama has in fact accomplished an immense amount in his first year and a half in office. Passing national health-care…is enough for a president to retire on. Financial reform, once passed, will be a major accomplishment; we’ll have to see how good the bill is. And, of course, we have an economy that’s in some kind of recovery, due in no small part to the ARRA, and whatever else you want to say about Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, at no time in the past 2 years have I gone to an ATM machine and found that I can’t withdraw money because the global financial system has ceased to exist. This was not a foregone conclusion. Obama has had, objectively, a very accomplished 18 months. But we’re running into a sense of the doldrums this summer, and that’s what prompted the comparison. Again, it may well be a very bad analogy.
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