As Senator Barack Obama rose toward power in 2007 and 2008, he was sometimes taken as the avatar of a new generation of African-American leaders.
They were, PBS’s Gwen Ifill wrote, a “Joshua Generation” led by figures from Alabama Rep. Artur Davis to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. They were, like Obama, born too late to participate in the Civil Rights movement, and late enough to benefit from it with blue chip educations and direct paths to power. They were free of the urban machines that had defined black politics in America, and ready for a different and more hopeful sort of politics of race.
But as President Barack Obama struggles to keep his party united around him, few figures have proven more troublesome than that cadre of black leaders, each of whom was seen at some point as a candidate for the post which only Obama will ever hold: First Black President.
Davis, 44, a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, was among the first members of Congress to endorse Obama in 2007; a campaign joke labeled him the "Second Black President."
Now he’s out of politics after an unsuccessful run for Governor of Alabama, and writing for the conservative National Review. Harold Ford, another leading light of his generation of black leaders, this week re-emerged as a spokesman for the finance industry that employs him. And Booker, 42, a Rhodes scholar who has remained closest to Obama and to his party, had to be pushed firmly back into line by the White House after saying the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital were “nauseating” and made him “very uncomfortable.”
The men have, for reasons of politics and personality, found themselves largely to the right of the president and well outside his inner circle.
“Win or lose you’re still going to have your career and the things you want to do when that’s over,” Davis said of this week’s flap. “Cory Booker has a very close relationship with a number of people in the private equity world and the hedge fund world.”
Those three Democrats in particular, though, have found themselves to varying degrees, to the right of their president.
“They’re young, maybe a bit more moderate, some of them have come from the private sector,” said Basil Smikle, a longtime New York Democratic operative and former Hillary Clinton aide during her Senate years.
The two southerners, whose statewide ambitions in Tennesee and Alabama pushed them to the center, have continued that rightward path. Ford, whose move to New York has probably ended his electoral career, has emerged as a centrist of the “Morning Joe” school.
“Overall, I agree with the substance of [Booker's] comments on 'Meet the Press,' I agree with the core of it. I would not have backed them out,” he said on the NBC morning show this week.
Davis was among the Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act. And Booker, who remains well to the left of the other two men, has allied himself with some of the center-right advocates of a style of education reform intensely opposed by teachers unions.
Their positions have won them friends and admirers in the center, if not in the liberal precincts of mainstream black politics.
“What they’ve tried to consciously do is move past racial definitions of politics,”
said Doug Schoen, a former Clinton pollster and Fox News contributor who has argued for a centrist, third-party alternative to the Democrats.
“I don’t see them as critics or allies of Obama,” Schoen said. “I see them as younger African-American leaders with a different style of politics, a different style of communications.” More important, Schoen said, they have a “different substantive agenda.”
Ifill, in her 2009 book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” profiled Booker and Davis, along with one member of their generation who has stayed firmly inside the president’s tent, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, 55, and another Harvard Law graduate.
But the others have pulled away from Obama. Davis told BuzzFeed that he “no longer feels at home” in the Democratic Party. Ford, who graced the cover of Newsweek in 2006 for a cover story titled “Not Your Daddy’s Democrats,” no longer appears to have a future in elective office. And Booker appears to be struggling to get back into line.
“If you’re mayor of Newark or if you’re representing Memphis, you have to go into housing projects, you have to be seen as accessible as well as a problem solver,” said Smikle. “I think that the difference between the president and some of these local leaders is that they’re feeling that the white house may not be too accessible, even to them.”
“You do have these elected officials like Cory who absolutely support the president, speak very highly of the president wherever they go, but there’s also the reality of what they’re dealing with on the ground,” he said.
And that enforcement of party discipline can itself rankle. Davis watched Booker’s appearance on Meet the Press, he said, and saw himself. In 2008, he had criticized Democrats’ attacks on Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin: "My party could lose the election over this one issue” he said of attacks on Palin’s religion.
And Davis noticed parallels, too, between the way he and Booker were handled after their respective forays outside the campaign’s messaging.
“I certainly heard from a number of sources in Obama campaign and elsewhere that they were unhappy I had gotten off message,” he recalled. “A surrogate is there to carry water for the guy or lady who’s running.”
Davis isn’t carrying any water this time around. He’s contributed to both Democratic and Republican politicians recently, and occupied a perch at Harvard’s Institute of Politics for a semester. He now runs a blog offering political commentary.
"I’m not involved in supporting the Obama campaign,” he told BuzzFeed, adding that he isn’t supporting Romney either.
Obama’s other moderate black critics still support him, Booker lavishly so. His appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show on Monday finalized his walkback from the Bain comments.
Campaign officials “didn’t force me to do anything,” he said. He called himself an “independent Democrat” who is “comfortable disagreeing with the President.”
And his brief moment of dissent doesn’t mean his surrogacy is over.
“You are going to hear a lot from me to the extent possible and to the extent that President Obama and his campaign want to hear from me,” he said.