CONDITIONING

Posted in Rants on September 27th, 2011 by Ed

Whether we end up doing a postmortem on the Obama presidency in 2012 or 2016, the diagnosis will be identical barring a dramatic and unforeseen change in governing style in a potential second term. Rather than bickering about individual decisions he has made or his ideological tendencies, I think the biggest single factor in his current low standing with the American public stems from his baffling but complete lack of passion. As people like George W. Bush or Bill Clinton understood, the presidency is about that nebulous concept of "leadership." Leadership is an emotional quality, an ability to inspire confidence in people and make them want to follow you. It's the ability to make people turn to you in a crisis and trust that you will have things under control. You have to project confidence, competence, and vision.

What Obama has most clearly failed to do, for lack of a better term, is to show some fight. To have a core principle other than "compromise is good." To draw a line in the sand occasionally and stand up for something. To propose something and not immediately back down from it. Instead of a president who commands respect, we have a situation in which every two-bit hillbilly freshman in the House feels free to take shots at him because he knows there will be no consequences. We have an opposition party that effectively controls the entire Federal government because they know he'll back down every time some AM radio host or group of yokels make loud noises in condemnation of him.

What Barack Obama really needs to do is to get angry, and that is why he will never succeed. He has spent his entire life preparing to fail in this position, because for a half-century Obama has worked hard to master the art of not coming off as the Angry Black Man. No matter how much he or the nation might benefit from a "Yes they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in hell!" moment, it's just not going to happen. No matter how much it would help to get eye to eye with Eric Cantor and say, "Let me explain what happened to the last guy who tried to fuck with me," it's just not going to happen.

While the idea that race is a factor in his lack of success is not novel, I don't think it is a factor in the way most often assumed. He isn't failing because Americans are racist (though they may be) or because the nation "isn't ready for a black president" or something like that. He's failing in part because, since childhood, he has seen the pathway to success defined by the expectations of (primarily white) people in positions of power. And the message has been reinforced hundreds of times over: do not scare the white people. Do not start yelling and pointing your finger and going off on the twisted history of race in this country. They'll treat you as a threat like Malcolm X or write you off as a hysterical demagogue a la Jesse Jackson. Rick Perry can yell and scream all he wants and he will be "passionate"; but the black guy can't do the same and expect to be applauded for it. Always be calm. Always be in control. Always be measured and rational. Never raise your voice.

Throughout his life Barack Obama has taken careful note of what happens to the ambitious, intelligent black men before him who failed to remember this cardinal rule. They were marginalized and he wanted to succeed. Being the Nonthreatening Black Man has been the only pathway to success for someone like Obama. Note that it doesn't entail "acting white", because white people are allowed to get angry in public. It entails acting like white people expect you to act. I'm not making excuses for him, but merely pointing out that he lives between a rock and a hard place. To be the president Americans want, occasionally one must throw down. To be the black man Americans will accept, he has to be nonthreatening.

Maybe he's wrong about that, and a majority of the country would like it if he got pissed off and threw a folding chair at the refs. But as someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and internalized all of the race-based expectations of rural America, the Ivy League, and the political system, I doubt anyone could convince him to try it.