On April 4, 2009, the Washington Post had a front page article with a headline of "Blacks at Odds Over Scrutiny of President."
The article stated that for many African Americans there was now a division between those who want to continue to praise Obama and his historic ascendancy and those who want to be more critical now that the election is over.
In the article, Patricia Wilson-Smith of Black Women for Obama says "it is way too soon for people to ask Obama to fix long-held racial disparities." And yet Jeff Johnson of BET is quoted in the same article as saying after the inauguration -- which thrilled him -- "Now what's he going to do?" reflecting upon, amongst other challenges, a 50% dropout rates for some high school students and high unemployment.
The Post article had a discussion about the expectations for this first black president by African Americans in the United States and perhaps globally. I was struck by the familiarity of this dilemma given my experience with women presidents and prime ministers.
I remember talking with Benazir Bhutto about what women thought would happen once she came to office as Prime Minister of Pakistan , which she did three times, the last resulting in her assassination in 2008. She understood that women thought that much would instantly change for their status and for the living conditions of women and girls once the leader was a woman. The expectations were enormous. And conversely they did not want her to fail because she represented "all" women and if she failed it would set women back in their pursuit of leadership. It would be like, "we tried a woman and she failed, so we won't try that again."
The fact was the Bhutto and other leaders as women cannot always, and probably never will be able to, fulfill this inflated belief that a woman leader can make substantial changes on issues that are deeply imbedded in culture. And that assumes they want to make the changes (see Margaret Thatcher).
In addition, taking Bhutto's example, there were no women in her cabinet in Pakistan, only three women in Parliament, and the literacy rate for women in rural areas was 17%. She might have wanted to change things but she had few allies and resources to do so.
A first-in-the-position woman leader also finds that she is under intense scrutiny. If she creates even a few programs or policy changes directed towards the benefit of women and girls her critics will say "she only really cares about women." Ironically, a male leader who does substantial programs for women and girls would be hailed as a hero.
Generally speaking, white male presidents don't get that same amount or kind of scrutiny .
It does not surprise me that the debate around President Obama includes the issue of how much to expect; what can change; and how critical the group he comes from should be towards him. Both women and African Americans belong to the historically out-of-power groups. There are pent up demands and desires for societal changes and a huge desire to see him or her succeed.
I believe we would be hearing some of the same dialogue and consternation if the president were the first woman.