Paterson on Sinking or Swimming With Obama

Governor David Paterson of New York thinks that the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States will be positive in the extreme for upward-aspiring black elected officials and politicians around the country.

Unless it isn’t.

“If Senator McCain doesn’t turn out to be so great, well, he is just on a list of presidents that didn’t turn out to be so great,” Mr. Paterson said in a telephone interview on Oct. 14. “If Senator Obama doesn’t turn out to be so great, though unfair, it will probably manifest the destiny of others.”

Mr. Paterson, the first black governor of New York, added that it was invariably the case that “because they are the first, a little more attention will be paid to how they fare.”

Mr. Paterson made clear in no uncertain terms that he believes Mr. Obama’s presidency, should it indeed occur, would be a very successful one, and that his political and intellectual talents made him uniquely suited to turn the country around. 

But he also suggested that sometimes outside events, like the Iran hostage crisis that felled President Jimmy Carter, can “dictate circumstances.” And that if an Obama administration fell short of its goals, even because of circumstances outside its control, the consequences would not be limited to Mr. Obama alone.

“Are the aspirations of others connected to him? Perhaps,” said Mr. Paterson.

Mr. Paterson argued that the success Mr. Obama has achieved already is indicative of the fact that the country has matured. He also said that the very fact of Mr. Obama’s election, a “historic presidency,” would ultimately make even voters who don’t support him more used to the idea of a black leader.

“I think that a president commands so much attention and gets to be seen every day—it’s almost like the guest at the dinner table,” said Mr. Paterson.  “Every couple of days, you see the president doing something that whether an Obama presidency was considered hugely successful or somewhat disappointing, just the mere relationship he would have with the American people would go a long way to improving relations.”

Another way in which Mr. Obama’s election would affect the black political establishment, Mr. Paterson suggested, would be to challenge it to find a new way to talk about civil rights and race in America.

“It removes that ultimate criticism that, you know, America never recognized anybody,” he said. “If you elect a black president, a lot of that rhetoric has to stop. It doesn’t mean that there is full equality. But just the kind of terse criticism you would hear in the past—it ridicules it. It makes it harder to make up excuses. So in other words, it’s going to have to be a lot more of self-empowerment, because a self-empowering person became president. So it’s going to put a lot more pressure on African-American leaders to produce.” Paterson on Sinking or Swimming With Obama