Barack Obama, State of the Union

Obama’s Re-Election Edge: He’s Black

Wall Street Journal columnist Shelby Steele wrote a very interesting article about Obama’s re-election campaign, saying that the Republicans are at a disadvantage because Obama is (still) black.

It was interesting in the sense that it seemed like a thinly veiled complaint that he has an unfair advantage because he is black. Steele says that there is a clear distinction between Barack Obama the myth and Barack Obama the man. Obama’s mythical power amongst the general American public comes from his embodiment of the American Dream: If Barack Obama can ascend into the greatest office of the greatest country, then anything is possible.

…his presidency flatters America to a degree that no white Republican can hope to compete with. He literally validates the American democratic experiment, if not the broader Enlightenment that gave birth to it.

He is also an extraordinary personification of the American Dream: Even someone from a race associated with slavery can rise to the presidency. Whatever disenchantment may surround the man, there is a distinct national pride in having elected him.

All of this adds up to a powerful racial impressionism that works against today’s field of Republican candidates. This is the impressionism that framed Sen. John McCain in 2008 as a political and cultural redundancy—yet another older white male presuming to lead the nation.

While I understand the general concept, it smacks of affirmative action non-sense (um…”even someone from a race associated with slavery”). Oh wait, Steele himself actually calls Obama’s “ride” to the Presidency “affirmative action,” despite repeatedly mentioning Obama’s “exceptionalism:”

Today this charisma is not as strong for Mr. Obama. The mere man and the actual president has not lived up to his billing as a historical breakthrough. Still, the Republican field is framed and—as the polls show—diminished by his mere presence in office, which makes America the most socially evolved nation in the world. Moreover, the mainstream media coddle Mr. Obama—the man—out of its identification with his exceptionalism.

Conversely, the media hold the president’s exceptionalism against Republicans. Here is Barack Obama, evidence of a new and progressive America. Here are the Republicans, a cast of largely white males, looking peculiarly unevolved. Add to this the Republicans’ quite laudable focus on deficit reduction and spending cuts, and they can be made to look like a gaggle of scolding accountants.

How can the GOP combat the president’s cultural charisma? It will have to make vivid the yawning gulf between Obama the flattering icon and Obama the confused and often overwhelmed president. Applaud the exceptionalism he represents, but deny him the right to ride on it as a kind of affirmative action.

A president who is both Democratic and black effectively gives the infamous race card to the entire left: Attack our president and you are a racist. To thwart this, Republicans will have to break through the barrier of political correctness.

Steele either really thinks Obama is exceptional, or he seems to think that Obama was only elected because he was black – and that his re-election chances are high because no one wants to be seen as rejecting the first black president. However, Steele ignores the eight terribly oppressive years of George W. Bush. He forgets how Obama rallied a nation. He forgets how Obama used the tools of the new generation to involve more people than ever in an election. He forgets that Obama has actually accomplished a lot. Even if most of it was unpopular, he will be remembered for doing what George W. Bush never did: truly trying to set this country up for success in the next century.

Steele also uses Obama’s 47.6% likability number as proof that he’s right, as if there’s no way that people could like this President after all the harm that he has caused this nation. Politics in the United States is a 50/50 game, and Steele acts like Obama doesn’t deserve any of his popularity – or worse, Steele thinks he is only popular because he’s black and no one wants to be called “racist” for not supporting the first black President.

Overall, I think Steele has a point: the Republicans are out-of-touch, have no re-election edge and “can be made to look like a gaggle of scolding accountants.”  Obama may have mythical status – and it’s hard for any cultural icon to live up to such lofty expectations – but he certainly has not escaped criticism just because he’s black.

The problem Mr. Obama poses for Republicans is that there has always been a disconnect between his actual performance and his appeal. If Hurricane Katrina irretrievably stained George W. Bush, the BP oil spill left no lasting mark on this president. Mr. Obama’s utter confusion in the face of the “Arab spring” has nudged his job-approval numbers down, but not his likability numbers, which Gallup has at a respectable 47.6%. In the mainstream media there has been a willingness to forgive this president his mistakes, to see him as an innocent in an impossible world. Why?

Why? Because Obama is intelligent and sincere, honestly doing what he believes is best, not for his own personal interests, but for the nation. He may not please everyone – heck, he’s even willing to stand up against his own party – but he comes across as far more real and trustworthy than George W. Bush and his cronies ever did. Oh, and George W. Bush’s presidency erased a $150 billion surplus, handed a $1.2 trillion deficit to Obama and cost the country over $10 trillion dollars long-term – so what Obama inherited was many times more challenging than ever before.

Obama deserves a little slack for navigating our ship through the worse squall in human economic history, without getting bitter about the genesis of the storm – the Republicans had 8 years that started with a surplus, and ended with the biggest deficit in the history of the United States. If anything, the Republicans created this “impossible world,” and  therefore have a lot more to overcome than Obama’s cultural myth to take the White House in 2012.

(full opinion at Wall Street Journal)

  • The biggest problem I see with this article is this line, “Add to this the Republicans’ quite laudable focus on deficit reduction and spending cuts…” There is no focus on deficit reduction or spending cuts in the Republican party except in as much as it is a side effect of service cuts. The Ryan budget has spending cuts being redirected to tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which is entirely unsurprising. Can we please get over this myth that Republicans actually give a damn about reducing deficit spending when they created the deficit in the first place? Or when they’ve not actually done anything in Washington or the states that actually seems to reduce deficits, but does trample all over the poor and elderly?

    Also, can we please stop pretending that this is their focus? Three state budgets have gay marriage bans in them. 144 measures to curtail abortions in 48 states have been brought up this year alone. Tennessee just passed the Don’t Say Gay bill. States have been whittling away at union rights. Here in Florida our governor wants to requires all state employees to take regular drug tests (nevermind that his wife owns a drug testing company). The Republican party is focused entirely on social issues, they always have, and they always will. This article is a reflection of that, from a party and a movement that is distrustful of intelligence and sober thinking and, yes, still is at least moderately racist, though homophobia and Islamophobia are much more prevalent these days. The fact of the matter is that the Republican party is focused on solidifying white, male, straight, evangelical privilege, and they can’t conceive of how a black man could possibly have slipped by them.

  • Anonymous

    Nevermind the b.s. Republicans do; I think Obama is doing and excellent job.  He’s started getting us out of the WARS created by the conservatives, he’s actually added jobs and expanded the economy (unlike the Bush years), and he’s supporting gays afterall (something I never even anticipated.)

  • ShowMeGuy

    Obama’s re-election edge: He is NOT a republinazi.

  • ShowMeGuy

    I must have missed when Obama became black.  I just never noticed, I guess.