Topic: Politics & Elections
Now that the presidency of Barack Obama can be seen to have failed, the question becomes urgent: Why did Americans elect him in the first place? Specifically why did so many people on the progressive side of the political spectrum allow themselves to be taken in by his soaring but rather low-calorie 2008 campaign rhetoric? You know the kind of thing: “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” etc. How is it that the best and brightest among the self-described reality-based party failed to discern what was obvious from the start to a rube like Rush Limbaugh?
If you get in the Wayback Machine and return to 2008-09, you’ll find many embarrassingly craven examples of Obama worship, and not just from his starry-eyed campaign claque. There’s the example of New York Times columnist David Brooks, who gushed over his first meeting with The One: “I remember distinctly an image of—we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” There’s the truly weird example of CNN anchor/reporter Foreman, who started writing letters to Obama during President’s first term. He wrote one every day and the final tally was 1,460 letters totaling more than half a million words. From Tinseltown, we got this from Susan Sarandon: “He is a community organizer like Jesus was. And now, we're a community and he can organize us.” And from overseas a December 2009 editorial in the Danish newspaper Politiken agreed with Ms. Sarandon. Because, you know, Barry too evolved from humble origins into a defender of the weak and vulnerable, albeit without the annoying religious b.s.
What was going on? What the hell was going on?
One explanation frequently advanced for the outpouring of intemperate Obama worship was the candidate’s race. And this was true as far as it went. But Obama wasn’t just black. He was something more: the Acceptable Black Man for whom white progressives had long been waiting.
Sure, other blacks have run for president, the Rev. Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton among them. But how could white progressives in the media, in academia or in the Democratic Party take such candidacies seriously? It wasn’t just that Jackson and Sharpton were seen as special pleaders, overly identified with one group of Americans. No, what really disbarred them from serious consideration in the minds of progressive establishment types was simple snobbery. With their flashy suits, histrionic rhetoric and camera-hogging habits Jackson and Sharpton seemed, well, tacky. Over the top. Lacking in class.
Then came Barack H. Obama.
Here was a black candidate with the qualities for which white liberals had been pining. Obama is a thoroughly atypical African American. He was born in Hawaii. He has lived in Indonesia. His father is a Kenyan and his mother is white. Himself aware that these anomalies set him apart, Obama made a conscious effort as a young man to connect with the African American mainstream, a quest that led him into the flock of the Rev. Jeremiah White. But his education and upbringing nevertheless fashioned him into a person with whom white progressives could easily identify. Disregarding his skin color, Obama is one of them. Their education, ideas, beliefs, opinions and habits of thought are his as well. He speaks their language. He makes them feel comfortable. He is the Acceptable Black Man.
It’s easy to understand why black Americans thrilled to Obama’s candidacy and election. Simply on the basis of his skin color, they identified with him. What could be more natural? But whether Obama has ever truly identified with them is a doubtful question. As president, he has paid no particular attention to the many problems of black America. On the other hand, he has been most solicitous of the desires of the progressive establishment. Ideologically he resembles Elizabeth Warren, not Jessie Jackson.
White progressives saw this in Barack Obama and it explains their worshipful attitude toward him in the salad days of his political career. That he was black was exciting and convenient—but that he seemed truly one of them clinched the deal. Their relationship with him, a form of self-love, has been one of the most amusing episodes in American political history.