When Jerry Kellman received an application for a job as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s with a cover letter signed “Barack Obama,” he thought, “What the hell is this? And Honolulu? I thought, Well, he’s Japanese.” Once Obama arrived in Chicago, some who heard his name assumed he was of Irish descent—O’Bama. By the time he ran for president, the right was more interested in the fact that his surname rhymed with Osama and his middle name—Hussein—reminded people of Saddam.
Obama has always been something of a Rorschach test—the psychological experiment wherein a patient is presented with a series of inkblots and is asked what they mean. The blot is the same for everyone. But everyone sees something different in it.
Similarly, people take one look at Obama—or in the case of his name, not even that—and project their aspirations and anxieties onto him. One Zogby poll in 2006 showed that after being told his parents’ race and nationality, more than half (55 percent) of whites and 61 percent of Hispanics classified Obama as biracial, while two-thirds (66 percent) of blacks regarded him as black. The truth, of course, is that he’s both. Same information. Same man. Different takes.
The notion that people would project their hopes and fears onto a political leader is not unique to Obama. But the particular confluence of events and identities makes the discrepancies between who Obama is and who people want him to be particularly acute.
This is not news to Obama. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.” Back then he chalked it up to his being a relative newcomer on the political scene. But familiarity has not attenuated the problem. If anything, with six months to go before the election, it’s accentuated it.
For as he returns to the campaign trail, he is starting to sound like the politician many liberals thought they had voted for: principled, smart and commanding rather than the compromised, inept moderate negotiator we have seen so much of. Which raises the question: Where has this Obama been for the past four years?
So it was when Obama slammed Ryan’s budget proposals as social Darwinism. Obama was right, of course: for a party so skeptical of evolution, the Republicans seem curiously at home with the survival of the fittest. Ryan’s plan would not only represent a devastating attack on poor Americans while redistributing resources to the rich; it would actually make the deficit worse. But it’s not as though Obama has lacked the opportunity to face down the Republicans over their misanthropy and fiscal innumeracy before. Why are we hearing this now?
“Every once in a while he tries to get politically cute,” argued David Brooks in the New York Times. “And he puts on his Keith Olbermann mask.” (It’s about the only accurate line in the piece, which goes on to praise Ryan’s budget.)