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There is not much that Ted Cruz says that is not meant to inflame some subsector of the American electorate. So, it was the height of irony for the (despite himself) Canadian-born Republican Senator to last week accuse Barack Obama of spending his presidency "inflaming racial tensions" rather than being the "unifying leader" he had promised to be.

Mr. Cruz, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, was participating in the latest iteration of a right-wing pile-on that occurs whenever (which is not a lot) Mr. Obama opens his mouth on the question of race. No matter how reflective, soothing or constructive the first African-American President tries to be, his words are inevitably twisted by talk radio and Fox News hosts into some angry demand for black reparations or diatribe against white power.

This is the main unrealized promise of the Obama presidency. The President, who has most deeply considered his country's racial divide and faced the most oversized expectations with regard to narrowing it, has seen race relations and the economic plight of African-Americans worsen on his watch. In the wake of the Baltimore riots, far more Americans (61 per cent) characterize race relations as "generally bad" than at any time since Mr. Obama took office.

Worse, African-Americans are sliding down an economic ladder they had been gradually climbing. Millions of black people who moved north during the Great Migration of the mid-20th century found jobs in bustling factories. Millions more found public-sector jobs – as teachers, postal employees or city workers – as black people took over city governments and congressional seats in places such as Baltimore and Detroit. These workers formed the basis of a black middle class.

But the previous recession hit black people harder than any other group. Manufacturing was shedding jobs before the crash; governments and the post office followed suit when it hit. As Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead has noted, black people accounted for less than 12 per cent of the U.S. work force in 2011, but 21 per cent of postal employees and 20 per cent of all government workers. But with government and manufacturing in retreat, black people faced bleak job prospects.

The new economy is largely a black-free zone. A USA Today analysis last year found that African-Americans occupied only 2 per cent of the jobs at seven big Silicon Valley companies. That's not hard to understand given the state of public schools in places such as Baltimore, Detroit and Washington, where political nepotism and unions have stood in the way of reform.

Meanwhile, systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system – black people are far more likely than white people to be sentenced to jail for minor drug violations, ending up with criminal records that make them virtually unemployable – is so deep as to cry out for a national inquiry.

Mr. Obama is hardly to blame for this situation, but it is a bit of a mystery why he has not made improving it a major, stated focus of his presidency. We have inklings of why – he does not want to be seen as the president of only black America, he knows anything he says makes him a lightning rod for the likes of Mr. Cruz. But are those good enough reasons not to seize the bully pulpit and unique opportunity history has provided him?

It's true that Mr. Obama has spoken more often and forcefully about race during his second term. But there have also been more incidents that have forced him to speak up. The killings by police of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray – and the pain and rioting they provoked – warranted an expression of empathy from the one man African-Americans look to more than any other for healing.

There are also signs that, late in his presidency, Mr. Obama is finally shedding his reticence on race. On Monday, he presided over the launch of My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a corporate-backed non-profit that aims to lift outcomes for black and Hispanic young men by boosting reading scores, high-school graduation rates and postsecondary enrolment. "We see ourselves in these young men," Mr. Obama said of himself and first lady Michelle Obama. "We are in it for the long haul … not just the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life." Obama watchers predict the charity will be a major focus when he leaves the White House.

His best work may be yet to come.