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.)
That many on the right have distorted Obama’s record beyond recognition is predictable. It’s what they do. Attend enough Rick Santorum rallies and you’d be forgiven for believing that socialism is imminent and Obamacare gives Joe Biden the right to break into your house and administer a pap smear.
The persistence of the fantasies among liberals is more surprising. It seems that any attempt to discuss Obama’s record must first be tempered by some speculation about what he would have done (were it not for political obstacles) or could not do (because the office would not permit it). As Aileen, a caller in an NPR discussion about civil liberties, said, “Sometimes on the left we can be very naïve because after he stopped being a campaigner and became the president and was privy to information that we do not see, he changed his mind on a number of issues, because his primary responsibility is to protect us.”
While we cannot divine his intentions, his record, clearly, is a mixed bag. The claim that he’s achieved nothing is as untenable as that America would be like Sweden right now if only the Republicans hadn’t gotten in his way. Obviously, like any elected politician he must navigate the situation he inherited. But that doesn’t stop people from deluding themselves that he was more worthy of the wave of optimism that swept him into power than he ever was. As one person told me while leaping to the president’s defense over the escalation in Afghanistan, “You don’t know what’s in his heart.”
“True,” I replied. “Only his cardiologist can know that. But that knowledge would make little difference to the people of Afghanistan.”
Obama is no mere passive recipient in this process. While he does not control it, he has at times tried to leverage and game it. Rhetorically, at least, he projected a far more dynamic, idealistic and populist campaign than the one he was really running. But when it came to matters of substance, far from raising expectations too high, he set them quite low. Some of his first actions in office at a time of war and economic crisis were to keep Bush’s defense secretary, reinstate Bill Clinton’s economic team and put in a banker at the Treasury.
The man is not a radical. He never was. Nor did he say he was, though he was happy for some to think he might be. If he had been, he would never have won. A winner-take-all voting system where both parties are corporately financed, Congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40 percent of the upper chamber can block anything is no vehicle for radical reform. Nor is the presidency.
This doesn’t mean there’s no difference between Obama and his Republican opponents. It means we should not make excuses for him. He’s the best that could be elected last time, and this time. And that’s the problem.