King Obama

King Obama
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Another one of those long, epic profiles of the President was published the other day. You know the type — a 20,000 word wonder where the reporter gets to fly around in Air Force One and hang out in the Oval Office and notice how the President swears a lot and misses his children and once came this close to bombing some country before ultimately deciding against it. The sort of longform exposé that’s neither terribly revealing nor terribly interesting, but still contains just enough memorable anecdotes and one-liners to give the Washington commentariat something to chew on for about a week.

This particular one, “Going the Distance” was in the New Yorker, written by David Remnick. He’s one of the magazine’s senior political reporters and the author of The Bridge, a bestselling political bio of Obama which posits that the man’s success has come mainly from his skill at mediating differences between rival factions (hence the title).

The bulk of “Going the Distance” tries hard to maintain that conclusion, though obviously evidence is now getting a tad scarce. In one defensive moment, Remnick forces Obama to basically admit that the whole “there’s no Red America or Blue America” trope was always a load of junk (it was merely supposed to be “aspirational”, backpeddles the President); in another he marvels at the ostentatiously sympathetic way Obama insists on characterizing Republican motives, “as if the unifying moment were still out there somewhere in the middle distance.” In any case, Remnick notes that the White House has largely given up on bipartisan dealmaking — “they maintain that they could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time… and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington.” And it’s not because I suck at “schmoozing” adds the President, it’s because “there are some structural institutional realities to our political system” that no president can overcome.

Amid all the dour moping about the foreboding three years (can you believe it?) that still await the administration, two episodes of the Remnick piece have proven especially chatter-worthy.

The first, the subject of this toon, came during a passage on how horrible a year 2013 was for Obama, and how badly his poll numbers have slipped. Remnick observes that white voters seem particularly turned off, to which the man replies “there’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.”

The right has predictably jumped all over this statement, calling it yet another tendentious Obama trip to the well of racial grievance whenever the going gets tough.

And not unjustly so.

Even if you accept the premise that a large portion of Obama-haters are motivated by little more than unvarnished racism (and I don’t), presumably this is the sort of thing that should remain static over time. We usually think of bigotry as a hateful prejudice you begin believing out of ignorance but ultimately evolve out of, yet for racism to be a plausible explanation for Obama’s steep approval slump among white voters — from 53% to 32% since 2009 — white America would somehow have to be getting more racist in open spite of their previous tolerance. As opposed to the Occam’s Razor explanation, which is that they have some manner of legitimate political grievance with some aspect of his agenda: NSA spying, Obamacare, the economy, whatever — a trend which would have the added benefit of also explaining the growing disillusion of the rest of America’s racial rainbow.

In fairness, Obama also conceded that “some black folks and maybe some white folks” remain loyal to him precisely because of race, but again, it’s not clear why a president should be spending any of his time thinking this way. The moment a politician convinces himself that large swatches of the electorate are fundamentally irrational in their perspectives — either for or against him — is the moment he willingly dismisses public opinion as a useful gauge for the justness of his policies.

Anecdote-of-note number two concerned pot, which, in the aftermath of the swift decline of gay marriage as an issue anyone cares about, has become pet cause number one for the socially liberal set.

Pressed to state a hard opinion on the dangers of the soft drug, Obama stated, that no, he didn’t think it was as bad as alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” While sounding a sour note on the consumption of cannabis as a lifestyle choice — a “vice” and a “waste of time” were two phrases he used — the opinions expressed on the legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington were among his clearest to date. Legalization is not a “panacea,” he warned, but I still think it’s “important for it to go forward” in states that allow it, particularly if that means fewer destitute minorities will continue receiving those crazily disproportionate sentences we’re always hearing about.

Some libertarians and leftists have long peddled a myth that Obama has been “no different” on pot policy than any of his Republican predecessors, and to this day, the fact that marijuana possession remains a federal crime is often discussed as if it was something this White House dreamed up in a vacuum, as opposed to an inertia-backed inheritance of 1930s. Yet again and again, this president has sided with pro-legalization forces whenever given the chance, first with a 2009 decree from his attorney general that the feds would not crack down on the private, retail distribution of medical marijuana in states that had democratically chosen to allow it, and then, a few years later, with a similar announcement that no one in his administration was going to be rushing to quash fully legalized pot in CO and WA, either.

To the extent the president’s pot statements made anyone clutch their pearls, in short, it was simply those who haven’t been paying attention. But then again, as I wrote a while ago in a different context, the gradual chip-chip-chipping away of drug prohibition seems to be a phenomenon hardly anyone’s watching very closely.

It might not be entirely fair to the President to exert quite so much effort parsing elaborate meaning out of a few select sentences, yet as Remnick makes clear, Obama chooses his words with such painful precision it’s be hard not to. The man is a “spool of cautious lucidity” when being interviewed, Remnick says; in a New Yorker podcast he went even further and claimed you can practically see the President’s “heart rate slow down” when he speaks on the record, so careful is he.

Americans should never forget that one of the great strengths of their democracy is that their leaders are routinely willing to collaborate with journalists in long, investigative profiles of themselves. I recently finished reading a reasonably sympathetic book about Prime Minister Harper that’s nevertheless mainly sourced by idle speculation and off-the-record gossip, simply because the man just doesn’t like talking to reporters, and Canadian journalistic culture largely accepts this as reasonable. Much of what we know about Obama, by contrast — his values, principles, agendas, and goals — is sourced by open admissions from the guy himself.

At one point Remnick has Obama expressing skepticism about the so-called “great man” theory of history, the idea that monumental political and social changes ultimately originate from rulers, not the people. And while caution may be rightly warranted about such a single-cause thesis of politics, there’s still something to be said about a culture that encourages keeping such close watch on society’s great men just the same — monotonous though the chore may sometimes be.


  1. Trenacker

    The "Great Man" theory of history is endlessly fascinating to me, and I'd love to engage in a deeper discussion of it. "Let Us Now Praise Great Men," a Spring 2001 article in International Security (25:4, 107-149) provides engaging fodder.

    Obama is an interesting test case. I believe that his skin color exacerbates white middle class anxiety about increasingly visible religious and cultural plurality in the United States. Yes, we have always prided ourselves on being a melting pot. We also, I think, have tended to ignore the fact that white and non-white often did, and frequently still do, live essentially apart in this country. (Am I wrong to presume that it is the same in Canada?) I wonder whether the digital age has forced diversity on certain Americans to an extent that it was never tangible before, despite the fact that institutional barriers have been falling steadily since 1945.

    J.J., I'm curious whether you believe that Obama's agenda would be equally as provocative in the eyes of conservative voters if he were white.

    How do you measure racism in society? Do we take surveys? What does it mean when somebody decides that Obama is "playing the race card"?

    Conservative voters accuse Obama of chipping away at something essentially American. What is that? Does "quintessential America" have a color? Persistent suspicion that Obama is a Kenyan seems unlikely to stem from anything other than animus toward "the other" — in this case, a black man. Likewise the obsessive focus by a certain segment of the Right on Obama's biracial background.

    Obama's slump among white voters is probably due to the overall weakness of the economy, combined with the increasing appearance of ineffectual leadership. 2013 was the year of unrelenting scandal and false starts in dealing with international crises. Even if I think that Obama ultimately made the right call on Syria, he suffered badly for it in the polls — not least, perhaps, because he allowed the impression that he would bomb.

    I do think that once white voters become skeptical of Obama, they are more willing to question whether he serves "their" interests. Sometimes, those interests are apparently considered in racial terms; sometimes, in terms of class.

  2. @Cristiona

    I'm pretty sure that assassinating US citizens without a trial via drone strikes would decried even if the president was white.

  3. Rachael

    Certainly by some of us. OTOH, a lot of the people worried about those drones were quiet when the previous president brought in torture and "enemy combatant" classifications.

  4. Beppo

    And a lot of people who were saying, "Justice not vengeance!" in 2001 were merrily dancing on Osama bin Laden's grave in 2011. What's your point?

  5. Trenacker

    I'm pretty sure that Obama's platform covers a great deal more ground than his administration's policy on the use of drone strikes against American citizens overseas.

    Would conspiracy theorists question the validity of his birth certificate?

    What grounds did Sarah Palin really have for urging the president to stop using "the race card," as she put it?

    Perhaps bipartisanship died with the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton presidency. Perhaps it was doomed when the Internet provided us all the seemingly irresistible opportunity to lock ourselves in echo chambers.

    Personally, I think that Obama's skin is a sore point for a lot of white voters, many of whom, while perhaps not willing to register their misgivings on a survey, nonetheless complain about having to hear the Spanish option when making customer service requests and whine repeatedly about the fact that they aren't permitted to express "white pride."

  6. taospark

    I still find criticisms, such as Palin's tasteless tweet this past Monday invoking MLK against Obama "playing the race card", to be wildly off the mark even if Obama certainly allows his race to bolster what's left of his approval rating. I found the New Yorker profile to be far better and more contemplatively written than previous ones of the President to the point where you see glimmers of the law professor rather than a beleaguered chief executive.

    Obama is right to "play the race card" against birther conspiracies or claims he is a Muslim as they only surface precisely due to his race. With that said, I do applaud JJ's criticism of Obama's policies which evaluates him through far more conservative integrity.

  7. phlinn

    The problem is that despite paying lip service to not focusing on Pot Dispensaries, his actual record is terrible.

  8. Cato

    The first person to mention race in any conversation is usually the biggest racist in the room, no matter what stance they're publicly taking on the subject.

  9. Rachael

    'Even if you accept the premise that a large portion of Obama-haters are motivated by little more than unvarnished racism (and I don’t), '

    Hard to take seriously someone who thinks Birtherism isn't about race. Especially when doubts about Obama's citizenship — or Christianity — are concentrated among white Southerners.

  10. Colin Minich

    I'm compelled to agree. The writing is on the wall. We're getting an almost animalistic reaction out of some people especially when they're making monkey dolls and claiming it's parodic and not racist, all because people thought Bush was a chimp too. Well, let me know when white Texans were made fun of by use of primate comparisons.

    I know it can be a cop-out for some debates, but we've never seen such intransigence from an opposition for some time since 1860 I imagine. And given the central location of such paranoia, vitriolic language, awfully callous rhetoric, it's from the same location that brought about the Civil War, 1960s segregation, and an influence that carried into the Midwest, West Coast, and Alaska.

    Obama has a lot to answer for, like his inability to shut down Gitmo, but if people really think that his mention of him being hated on for race is all hearsay and foolishness, then I have a bridge to sell you.

  11. Ricky3

    "Well, let me know when white Texans were made fun of by use of primate comparisons. "

    These were all the rage when Bush was president. Hell, I even had a T-Shirt of it…

  12. Colin Minich

    Funny, but I think you missed the point. I was talking about white Texans as a purely racial comparison, not JUST GW Bush.

  13. @TheInvisibleDan

    Bush 43 had a bunch of wackos who claimed he was an illegitimate President, too. (Plus he planned the 9/11 attacks, didn'tcha hear?) Democrats were gearing up to declare McCain ineligible based on his birthplace, too. And don't forget that the birther accusations originally started with Hillary Clinton supporters during the primaries.

    The legitimacy claims against both Bush and Obama are motivated by exactly the same thing: sore losers. No more, no less.

    An accusation of racism in a discussion that's not about race is an admission that one has nothing worthwhile to say on that topic.

  14. Trenacker

    "Birther" accusations were never nearly as mainstream in connection with John McCain.

    Legitimacy claims against Bush were clearly motivated by sore losers. Legitimacy claims against Obama, less so. Legitimacy claims against Bush focused on muddled procedure. Those against Obama focus on attempting to reject evidence that reasonable people agree is sound.

    Conservatives dislike talking about race because they seem to think that acknowledging structural inequality is synonymous with endorsing reverse discrimination, a fallacy. The irony is that by trying to write race out of the socio-economic equation in this country, and by focusing relentlessly on "race-blind" analysis, conservatives inevitably appear tone-deaf at best, racist at worst.

  15. @TheInvisibleDan

    Because McCain didn't win. If he had, there would have been plenty of wacko Democrats waving copies of Article Two – although we would've heard about it less, since in this case giving them attention would hurt the wrong side. (An oh, what a crazy stampede of rabid Trig-birthers we would've seen if Palin had run for President in 2012…)

    It doesn't matter whether they focus on hanging-chad procedures or birth certificates – the motive of a sore loser is the same.

    Conservatives dislike talking about race because when it comes up, it's almost always a cynical, dishonest ad hominem attack by liberals.

    PS – Colour-blindness is the exact opposite of racism.

  16. Rachel

    Not only were "birther" accusations against McCain never mainstream, I don't think that I have ever seen them made in any other context than a rebuttal to accusations against Obama, likewise with Ted Cruz.

    I don't deny there are many liberals out there that have a lot of flaws in their arguments, and I'd predict that during a Ted Cruz candidacy that among some people lacking nuance, arguments would "drift away" from legitimate rebuttal toward genuine birther-ism to a minor extent. But I haven't seen that so far.

  17. Trenacker

    Frankly, I just don’t see how a reasonable person could contend that John McCain, had he won election in 2008, would have had to endure questions about his political legitimacy either to the same extent, or from as many “mainstream” critics, as has Barack Obama.

    As an aside (and one not applicable to you, Dan, per say), I also find it baffling how anybody can conclude that depictions of Obama as witch doctor and ape are not consciously racist. The contention that such depictions are not necessarily racist because George Bush was also frequently depicted by artists as a monkey, and so therefore similar depictions of Obama are inherently “legitimate,” ignores the essential role of context in political satire.

    On December 5, 2013, Ross Douthat published a provocative piece in The New York Times opinion pages titled “Conservatives and Structural Racism.”

    Douthat posited three types of structural racism: (1) public policies that, while “officially colorblind,” nonetheless have disproportionate impact on minorities, such as voter ID laws or “the interaction between drug laws, policing strategies and sentencing requirements;” (2) historical legacies that account for relative inequality across ethnic groups – simply put, slavery and Jim Crow; and (3) “quiet” racism. Douthat perceptively points out that, in theory, one would expect Republicans not to try to use the levers of government to correct inequality, doubting the efficacy and overall morality of such approaches; instead, they would, at best, try to “reshape” the law.

    Irrespective of whether or not one agrees with Douthat’s analysis of what constitutes structure, the public policy debate is especially interesting. The new voter ID laws are a good case-in-point. The alleged problem that necessitates this “solution,” voter fraud, is a non-factor in state and federal elections. What measureable benefit is gained through such a system? When weighed against the measurable suffering that it causes, why would any reasonable person continue to push the issue?

    I am always discomfited by conservatives’ confident assertions that allegations of race bias are so much hogwash. Many conservatives seem catastrophically unconcerned by the offensive they give to others. Hence the careless statements by Romney and others after Election Day 2012 that Obama won by appealing to minorities who “want things.”

  18. Jake_Ackers

    Frankly I think everyone is missing the point here. Obama doesn't use that race card that much. But when he does, he uses it in response to the haters. But truth be told, those "race" haters are what? 80% of conservatives/GOP? 70%? 50%? 40? 30? 20? 10? etc. etc.

    Regardless of the exact number, which I think are a small percentage in the first. Obama uses it like any other politician would use an issue. Make something big out of something small. All this proves is that Obama is more like every other politician, whether that is a good or bad.

    Frankly, Obama and his opponents are treating black people just like any other group. Paint the crazies of one side as the whole group.Bush used Christianity, Hillary will use her gender, and I am sure even a Latino Republican will use his/her race. Even a Jewish candidate will. Romney sure faced it over his Mormonism and his economic status. Get my point? Few people hate. A few more people use the "difference" factor as an insult. But the vast majority of people couldn't care less. We just want jobs.

  19. Jake_Ackers

    Funny thing is Democrats complained about a broken election system in 2000 and again in 2004. Reps get enough votes and try to fix. Albeit, in a bad way. Nevertheless voter ID laws should be implemented. It's how it is being done is the problem. Give people more time to get IDs.

    Moreover I agree, voter ID laws are pointless. The fraud is signing up to vote. And believe me I know there is fraud. I have relatives who live in Philadelphia who are non-citizens and still vote in Presidential elections. And we have seen recent cases of such in the news.

  20. Jake_Ackers

    True. Especially on your last point. I don't think policies today directly target people based on race but it does have an affect that reflects based on race. The old cycle of racism has lead to a new cycle of poverty. Even though the laws and policies might not discriminated based on race. There still needs to be new laws to help people, again not based on race, but rather opportunity.

    For example, if you live in an area where everyone else lives in poverty or gov't assistants. That means what? No economic activity, thus no tax revenue, thus bad schools, thus no education, no education leads to no body able to get a job. No job, no economic activity. And so on and so on. That's not a black people, that's an America people. It's rural problems, its urban poverty problems. It's a drug problem, crime problem, parents in jail problem. Which all started because of racism but not continues because of a cycle of poverty. And believe me when I say it. I lived in these areas and in these cycles, it's hard to get out.

  21. Colin Minich

    So you've missed the point though. Those challenging Bush's legitimacy was more upon the aftermath of Bush v. Gore in 2000. Obama's was not the product of a tight race. Obama won and he won handily. The birther argument was born out of a xenophobia because the man is bi-racial and happened to be in Hawaii and Indonesia during some time in his life.

    If you think that the loonies challenging Bush were at all comparable to the ones challenging Obama (Palin and Trump e.g.) right now and without some racial undertones, then you're a damn fool.

  22. @TheInvisibleDan

    I'm saying the *motive* for the accusations is the same, regardless of any relative difference in validity. Neither is caused by a dislike for black people or Texans or presidents who want to bomb the Middle East. It's simply that partisans on both sides don't like to admit failure, so some of them will try to claim the game was rigged or the other guy should have been disqualified.

    BTW, the claim that Palin endorsed birtherism in any way is a lie. When asked about it, she immediately compared it to the accusations that Trig isn't her baby, and said that questioning Obama's eligibility to be president was "stupid."

  23. Trenacker

    I agree with your overall point, J.J., that racism is neither a sufficient, nor even a nearly sufficient, answer to the question of why Obama's favorability rating with white voters has plummeted so steeply.

    Hazarding a guess, I'd say it has to do with a combination of frustration over the continuing economic malaise and the perception that Obama is an unusually bad manager of government. I’d also imagine that, partly for institutional-structural reasons, white voters are more apt to feel as if they might be served by either party than minority voters. This, then, leads to higher overall patterns of fluctuation in their perceptions than voters who are less changeable in their electoral preferences.

    Much Republican rhetoric about "takers" and "makers," such as it still exists, is apt to hit harder among whites, who are richer overall, than among minorities with more to gain from Obama's policies.

  24. Jake_Ackers

    It's simple. Unemployment among black people have always been higher. Whites lower. So what happens when people lose jobs? Those who have jobs, lose them. Thus more white people get pissed. If unemployment was under 4 or 5% white people would call him the Obamassiah too.

  25. robota rozum

    This is a bit tangential, but the interaction between the President's (as you put it) "breathtakingly elaborate domestic spy programs" and the traditional argument for the 2nd Amendment as a bulwark against government overreach is incredibly fascinating to me. Namely, that there is none whatsoever.

    Especially with a Democratic President, I would have guessed that such a reveal would provide endless ammunition (sorry) for Republicans who wanted less stringent gun control, but I haven't seen a single peep (for all that's worth, which is not much).

    I have always found the argument that disorganized militias with Glock 9s and .30-06s are a legitimate fear or the United States government ridiculous, so it's hard for me to figure out what they're thinking, but I've seen the argument used in other contexts and I wonder.

    In conclusion, impeach Obama before he descends into the tyranny that… he has already descended into…?

  26. Jake_Ackers

    The fear of tyranny gets more votes that the actual tyranny. Everyone complained about the Patriot Act yet it was renewed. Everyone complained about Gitmo and yet it was never closed when push came to shove. Let's face it folks. 90% of people are okay with anything as long as they are safe. It's the loud mouth 10 to 20 who complain.

  27. Virgil

    Hmmm….this may be overthought a tad. It's the sixth year of a Presidency…..and lame duck status beckons. This is the time when supporters start feeling let down and opponents start realizing eagerly that the era will pass. Congress starts to look at the President as someone to be outlasted rather than as a force to be reckoned with.

    So….the Presidents popularity suffers. White Evangelicals were always in opposition, so a generic decline shows impressive numbers with whites. Minorities were always in support, and despite a decline in approval still are in the majority. To all appearances these trends may appear to indicate a racial split. But they don't. The decline is among all groups….the only question is where the starting point in approval was. Put another way…it would be just as easy to graph a religious vs secular division as a racial given how approval lines up….but despite superficial appearances politics are not in the main driven by religious differences. However standing against racial targeting is an easy issue for the White House to win if it can frame the issue that way….so it does….even though it is not accurate.

    The politics are odd in a way. Opposition to Obama is driven more by Perot style fiscal conservatives than by the family values conservatives that form the base of the Republican Party….resulting in the establishment and tea party split. What will come next? The midterms should give us some guidance.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    What Obama is facing is nothing more than what JFK faced as well. Black in America is not a race, its an ethnicity especially urban versus rural black. As a result, if there is a dislike it more based on other factors than his darker skin tone. The darker skin tone is something easy to point to. Did people dislike the Irish because they had red hair? No, it was a lot of other factors as well.

    Okay maybe some people don't like tan skin or that being a redhead is unattractive or w/e else. But if anything, the dislike of Obama sounds a lot like the Democrats dislike of Lincoln right up until he was sworn in. Lets face it "LINCOLN IS GOING TO TAKE OUR SLAVES!" Sounds a lot like "OBAMA IS GOING TO TAKE OUR GUNS!"

  29. KKoro

    To be fair…Lincoln did take the slaves.

  30. Jake_Ackers

    Lol okay true. But he wanted to buy them out and make it gradual as opposed to what the Southerns thought. It cost the South more to fight the war than if they simply let it be a gradual process.