Friday, September 7, 2012

Obama: The Sad Relevance of Race

The president as a young man, about 1980.

Though he's repeatedly been called a "radical" or "Marxist" by Tea Partiers, anyone who studies Barack Obama's policy initiatives these past years would have to conclude that our president is actually a centrist. The fact is that Obama has done nothing out of the ordinary for a mainstream leader of a modern Western nation. In Europe, he would even be considered well right of center. American conservatives who now bitterly attack Obama for his "leftist agenda" would, I believe, have to start scratching their heads in confusion if they were forced to read actual leftist writers on Obama. Take political thinker Thomas Frank for instance. Interviewed last month in Salon, Frank communicated clearly the befuddled sense of despair progressives now feel when they survey Obama's repeated failure to push leftward. In particular, they say, the president has had many opportunities to hold Wall Street accountable for our economic woes, could have garnered enormous public support for a stricter regime of regulation on the financiers, but never did so. He never even clearly told the American public the true story of what happened--how their whole way of life had been nearly shattered by the deregulatory idiocy of the American right. In 2009 and '10 our president could have pointed fingers, named names, called for prosecutions, laid out a new and saner financial order. Most Americans would have been behind him. But he did none of these things, instead choosing to waste his substantial political capital trying to reach across the aisle to a party dedicated--as was obvious from the start--to nothing but his destruction. As the disgruntled Frank puts it: "What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all means should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover." Frank further points out that many of Obama's policies have in large measure been continuations of Bush policies. "Marxist radical" indeed.

If Frank is right, and I believe there's much truth behind his despair, we now need to ask: Why indeed did Barack Obama choose the route he did--to bring Wall Street insiders into his administration and let them call the shots, to push for the bailouts without doing the necessary house-cleaning, to let the bankers continue on largely as before?

One of the most depressing facts of being an American during these years has been watching the degree to which race has been used to fire up the Republican agenda. It started early on with birtherism, which many of us assumed would go away after a few months. We were disappointed. Now, years later, the birther nonsense seems strong as ever: even the GOP candidate apparently felt it was acceptable to say that "nobody ever asked me to show my birth certificate." I find this situation not merely disappointing. No, the bland lack of respect these people show for evidence is enough to provoke rage. I still wouldn't say, however, that this is so much a matter of the majority of white Republicans being overtly racist. This crowd was comfortable enough with Herman Cain, weren't they? Rather, what we see in the birther strain is a subtler kind of racism, one harder to call out as such and harder to ascribe to purely racist motives. For many of the wingnuts, I think it is not so much that they can't imagine a black man being president per se. Rather, it is that if an actual black man becomes president and if they disagree with that man's policies, then the racism might come into play in various forms--in this case, in the form of a bizarre willingness to believe (or to pretend to believe) almost any slander told against him. In fact the slanders being spread are beyond ridiculous: the birther slander in itself, for starters; the slander that he is hiding his true religion (Islam); the implication that his education was paid for by an enemy of America and that he is really a kind of sleeper agent now performing a mission to bring the country down. Certainly these slanders can take hold in the paranoid mind because the president is of mixed race and spent part of his youth in a Southeast Asian country. That the slanders flourish, however, should be attributed to the fact that the purveyors can use them as a weapon against the president's (supposedly leftist) policies.

But once racism is kindled, it risks becoming ever more poisonous. And this is obviously what has happened thanks to the willingness of the right to raise these birther-related issues. We can imagine Hillary in the White House pushing the exact same policy initiatives our president has pushed, but we can't imagine the same level of distrust or anger directed against her. Yes, the GOP faithful would have criticized her initiatives, they would have evoked the specter of Bloated Government, but this wouldn't have led to a discourse which painted Hillary as somehow evil, untrustworthy, alien or un-American in essence--a kind of foreign body made to appear ever more foreign and sinister with each passing month. A second Clinton administration wouldn't have led to the crazed fear I see in the right-wingers around me at present--a fear that America is somehow being permanently undone. But since our current president is of mixed race, since he has a partly foreign background, his policies aren't seen as merely the old "tax and spend liberalism"--no, instead they constitute a sneaking crypto-Islamic Marxist plot. Never mind that there is nothing in what he has done to indicate either Marxism or Islam. And never mind, again, that much of what he has done is simply a continuation of policies begun under that noted Islamist communist George W. Bush.

That the GOP's leaders have allowed this to develop as it has is despicable. They should be tarred and feathered for it in our press, but instead it is only noted: "Romney Campaign Goes Birther". That large swaths of the populace fall into such racist hysteria is regrettable, but then it has always been regrettable to me that such large swaths of the populace are uneducated. We have enormous resources of knowledge at our fingertips, we have some of the best universities in the world, but somehow millions still get through our education system while remaining unable to find England, much less Iran, on a map. And being uneducated, they are more likely to feel the world as such, especially non-whites, are somehow essentially other than Americans.

But enough of the sad spectacle of my compatriots drinking the right's racist Koolaid. What concerns me here is rather the question I raised above: namely, why has our president, a man who developed in the progressive crucible of community organizing, a brilliant man besides--why has he not employed more of his progressive fire during his first term?

On the left many people believe it's because he simply sold out. That once he got in his current high office, he found it more appealing to hobnob with Wall Street criminals than to subpoena them. These criminals, so the argument goes, have an insider professionalism that something in Obama appreciates. Now at the top himself, it is expedient simply to become one of them. I don't espouse this theory of the sell-out.

Still, Obama in some measure remains a mystery--not to the Tea Partiers who think they know him after watching Obama 2016--but rather to us on the left who wonder why he isn't more of the radical he is accused of being. In The Audacity of Hope Obama expressed his strong belief in working together and in compromise, and this no doubt explains much of his non-confrontational manner of governing. But many feel this isn't the only reason, that in itself it can't justify what they see as the president's overly conciliatory cool.

I believe the most compelling explanation for Obama's painstaking centrism may also, sadly, be related to race. Our president knows himself to be in an unprecedented American position: he recognizes he is playing a historical role that has never been played before. He is, after all, the first non-white president; he is the first black president. Thus Barack Obama steps back from the more aggressive reforms he'd otherwise push because he fears that if these reforms fail, the failure will not simply be chalked up to mistaken policy--no, it will be seen as vindication of the racist argument that a black man cannot be trusted in the highest office. His burden is thus unique. If a George W. Bush or a Jimmy Carter makes a mess of his years in office, that is a matter of poor policy or personal failure. If, however, Barack Obama makes a mess of his years in office, it is something else entirely: it has a different historical weight altogether; it will have repercussions for his race, his people.

What's more, Obama's wisdom tells him that given the vicissitudes of the world economy, it wouldn't be necessary for his policies to be wrong to still be judged to have failed. No, under such circumstances as we're now in, circumstances we might call nearly impossible, even the best policies could conceivably "fail"--which is to say, they might not lead to the wealth and success hoped for. Our president knows he is living in a time where the world capitalist system may itself be coming to crisis, and that any year now might see a downturn no one will really "recover" from in the old 20th-century sense of that word. If there is such a meltdown or partial meltdown on his watch, at least an Obama administration that had followed roughly the same policies as other recent US administrations could not be blamed for "doing something radical" and so being "instrumental in the end of the American way of life". This, I think, gives Obama further reason not to push truly leftward.

And so, as we listen to Thomas Frank complain that Obama walks a walk far too similar to that of his right-wing predecessor, we might ask ourselves if he isn't maybe doing this precisely because, as a black man in a unique historical role, he has too heavy a burden on his shoulders to walk in a more forthright way. Because to trip up would only confirm the suspicions of those millions of bigots and half-bigots who, no matter what happens, must never be given any such comfort. Would Hillary have had such a burden as the first woman president? I believe there would have been some of this. But given that the West has already had successful woman heads of state, the pressure not to fail would not have been nearly as great. Is Obama's burden, the sadly persistent burden of race, perhaps the real explanation for our "radical" president's surprising lack of radical initiatives? This to me seems likelier than that the former community organizer has sold out.

I don't want to be misunderstood with these remarks. Though I think Hillary would make a fine president, I am certainly not saying that I wish she'd been nominated instead of Obama. There may be some truth to my suspicion that Obama's unique historical position has hobbled his leftism, causing him to miss striking hard enough when the iron was hot, as it surely was in 2009. But even so, I can see he has accomplished much, and I am giving him my wholehearted support for the coming years. If he wins his second term, as I believe he will, there will be new opportunities to reform our oligarchical tax code and new chances to impose regulatory oversight on Wall Street. I can only hope that he will not waste his energies trying to reach across the aisle to that gaggle of Ayn Randian morons that still dares call itself the "Grand Old Party".

In conclusion, I should point out that I'm somewhat uncomfortable speculating on the sad relevance of race and how it might relate to Obama's centrism. There are others who make academic careers studying race relations in America, and compared to them I'm hardly qualified to write on these things. What's more, I'm a white man from rural Wisconsin, so my life experience can give me little cred on the issue of how a black man might deal with holding the most powerful office in a society long dominated by whites. My words here should be taken with a grain of salt, and I welcome any help in identifying my blind spots.

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