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A Troubling Pattern in America’s Obama Story

George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and was appointed president by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. A sanctimonious pundit class tells us it is crabby, unpatriotic and uncivil to dwell upon that bit of history. But questions of legitimacy (“does he really belong here?”) have dogged Barack Obama since he won the Iowa caucuses. Where have the “get over it” arguments gone? Long time passing.

There is an ugly pattern in coverage and conversation about Obama. The media’s immediate recourse to dubious language like “the Gulf oil spill is Obama’s Katrina” is just the most recent example.

Juxtaposed against the overt “get over it” arguments about Bush’s appointment, this presents us with some unpleasant suspicions about the national character. About Bush the media asked, “When will he succeed?” About Obama they ask, “When will he fail?” Obama’s the show that doesn’t belong on Broadway, and the critics clamor: when will the curtain come down?

Obama’s reflections at a San Francisco 2008 fundraiser about the source and symptoms of white, working class frustration would prove his undoing, we were told. Okay, then, surely the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” preaching would take Obama out.  A poor debate performance against Hilary Clinton? Disqualifying, said many.

Obama’s handling of the health care debate? The economy? Jobs? Too often the questions turned not on healthy, objective, rational critique, but on when this guy’s Broadway show would close. It’s not a quite a birther rant, but it’s of the same family.

Part of this is just the media’s attempted fulfillment of the clichéd American celebrity narrative: the star that rises from nowhere must crash and burn. I think unrestrained and unthinking Obama worship fed the “star” part of this storyline. I’m anti-authoritarian by nature, and I read too much history and covered politicians far too long to imagine superhero exploits from any of them, ever.

I’m for radical democracy because I believe in the wisdom of the public, not distant proclamations from an unapproachable elite or single political celebrity.  In my view, the president is a hired hand. I don’t even like it that there is a song called “Hail to the Chief.”

When the depressive Maureen Dowd asks that Obama show some melodramatic anger, it says more about our addiction to melodrama and our celebrity obsessed culture than it does Obama.

There’s a big difference between critique or heartfelt, courageous advocacy – pressuring Obama on health care or financial reform, for instance – and leaping to conclusions about his character or fitness for office.

The latter, I’m afraid, is connected to his undeniably historic achievement as the first African-American president of the United States. This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon, we’re told. It sent America’s unquiet racists into fits. It has led the media intelligentsia to frequent, hysterical predictions of presidential doom.

And it’s not just the media or the right wing that fall into this questionable pattern. Many Democrats do, too. Once again, I’m not talking about legitimate criticism or advocacy. That’s necessary in a democracy. It’s healthy. Unconditional loyalty and hero worship are not. Neither is hyper-sensitivity based in old prejudices we pretend to have outgrown.

Democracy requires honest introspection from its citizens.  We shouldn’t let our hopes for the post-racial era confuse our thinking about the national psyche, race, and the cultural impact of Obama’s presidency.

Why, we should ask ourselves, is America so willing so often to predict the end for Obama?

A couple of quick points. No one should misread these thoughts as a reduction of Obama criticism to issues of race. Our circumstance is, of course, more complex than that. But race matters, as Cornel West says. We can’t throw out a question involving race and the Obama presidency under the false premise that such a question reduces all questions about the Obama presidency to race. That’s a transparently phony dodge.

Also, this piece isn’t a review of Obama, a defense of Obama, or a critique of Obama. My only intention is to raise a question about a pattern in the Obama media story. I think that pattern is worth examining, because I think the examination will tell us something about ourselves.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith