What the Shirley Sherrod Episode Tells Us About Obama’s Administration

When he ran for president, Barack Obama did promise change. It looks like he has brought it to us.

There is one integral component to the Obama presidency that differs greatly from Bush. It was evidenced by the controversy surrounding Shirley Sherrod, who fell victim to the lies of smear artist Andrew Breitbart. Sherrod lost her job as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development with the Department of Agriculture after Breitbart’s false claims of Sherrod refusing to help a white farmer while working as a private advocate surfaced.

While condemning Breitbart, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center also condemned “the White House, which, apparently frightened of appearing in any way linked to black racism, stood by the essentially forced resignation even when it became clear that Sherrod’s speech was nothing like what Breitbart suggested.”

The administration’s knee-jerk firing of Sherrod is the other extreme of the stubbornness of the previous administration, which hung on to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for two years after the revelation of abuse at Abu Gharib and major public dissatisfaction with him.

This says something about the current administration, though it is not immediately apparent what it is. Whereas Obama explored race heavily in his memoirs, he has been running from the issue as much as possible since running for president. His unease with a political issue that is so integral to American life is disappointing, because Americans look to their presidents for leadership and if the president is afraid to talk about it, how will any progress ever happen?

It is also revealing of his approach to civil liberties. Since becoming president, civil liberties have continued to be under assault. This administration has authorized the unprecedented assassination of a U.S. citizen (a terrifying precedent, despite the target being a terrorist) and effectively “sidelined” the long-promised closure of Guantanamo. One cannot help but think of Jon Stewart’s characterization of Obama as “Frodo,” who now enjoys “all that power you didn’t like when someone else had it.” This, unfortunately, is something we can expect from all presidents, to be expressed in myriad formats depending on the times and their personality. Power corrupts.

What is clear is that Shirley Sherrod did not deserve to lose her job and that the administration did not play a virtuous role in this episode. Obama would be wise to take a look in the mirror and think about how to be a better leader. He handled a similar episode in 2008, when his friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was revealed, quite masterfully with a zeitgeist-shifting speech on race in Philadelphia. Where is that Obama?

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