Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.68.2: A PRESIDENT BY HALF

V068-02_halfBamaWe all know that President Obama is half-white, or half-black (or the other way round, if you prefer). I once naively wondered that the election of a racially-mixed man to the nation’s highest office might be an indicator that America was finally getting over its biggest hang up. Silly me; having Eurasian grandchildren or half African cousins must have clouded my vision. It is all to evident now that there are too many Americans who have a racist bug up their butts about it and that the election of Barack Obama sent this nation down into the bowels of its residual racism and gave it license for unfettered expression through the septic media of Limbaugh, Fox news and the Tea Party. Never mind Mr. Obama’s “halfiness,” wasn’t it good ole racist America that, legally, regarded someone who was something like one-eighth black as “black.”


One would hope that as America becomes more racially and ethnically mixed (in a few years the dominant category in California will be “non-white”) we will become more tolerant and capable of appreciating the perspective of others. But I am not counting on it anymore than I am counting on seeing the first Italian-American president (“Mama mia, yessa we canah.”) I’m not sure Nature works that way, and Nurture just might hold sway.


Mr. Obama’s racial “halfiness” doesn’t matter to me, as it should not to anyone. It is his behavior, not his genetic legacy that matters. So it is curious that while I am without concern as to his racial composition it is—and perhaps it is not entirely unrelated—his political halfinesswith which I have dissatisfaction and disappointment.


Although he is once again in campaign mode, where he is at his best, and talking tough out of the left side of his mouth, we no know that this is the electoral Obama, not the real Obama. The real Obama, and we have had him around long enough now, has been a puzzle. The real Obama is a guy who does things by halves, and if half is enough to get away with, there it lays. One half lures LGBTs into his camp with promises to rescind DADT, but the other plays from his phony Christian values side, and opposes gay marriage. He’s always going to close GITMO and stop renditions, but he trickles out the inmates. He pulls 100K combat troops out of Iraq, and sort of re-names those he left as “non-combat troops” (not to mention the 100K “contractors” left in place.) He is fighting half a war in Afghanistan and the other half in Pakistan.


Mr. Obama’s half-ish concessions to the Republicans have been a source of great consternation to those of us who had hoped for a leader, not a pleader. Despite a majority in both houses, Obama sold out on his policy approaches—taking the single payer option peremptorily “off the table”—even before he began making compromises to the Republicans and the health insurance companies and made a back room (un-transparent) deal with the pharmaceuticals, showed him to be an executive who is more concerned with appearance than substance. Once they had his number, the Republicans played him like a finger puppet each time he “reached out” to them and they voted unananymous “nays” to everything he proposed.


Then there was “the stimulus,” the insufficiency of which tempts one to query Michelle as to the president’s amorous overtures. While several economists (although apparently not those in his cabinet with Wall Street pedigrees) have counseled that an earnest stimulus needs to be several times greater, the stimulus, demonstrably apt, but insufficient, was economic foreplay that political opponents could turn against the President, because it left the unemployment rate too high. Going halfway (or less) with the stimulus has left unemployment stagnated at nearly 10 percent, and likely the most threatening factor to Democrat re-election chances in November.


By 2012 it might be the President’s committing 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan at a cost of about a billion per thousand per year. Go figure, because even that is half-assed, if you want to “win” that war. Here’s how retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 put it in Foreign Policy (online):


How this future unfolds should keep all of us on the edge of our seats. Nine years on, time is not on our side. And in a sense, we have leapt half way across the chasm. As the president states (battalion commanders in Kunar and Wardak, take note), this approach is “not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building… but a narrower approach (focused on Al Qaeda).” Both the July 2011 timeline and the middle-ground choice of 30.000 troops argue that we have effectively settled on splitting the difference.


I have harbored the suspicion that President Obama’s proclivity to do things by halves comes from a lifetime of successfully negotiating his way through the White world. He is in some sense not just a Black man, but a Black “immigrant” (despite, I must remind Mr. Dobbs, the fact that he was born an American citizen). Such a bright man learns, at the interpersonal and institutional level, how and when to lay low or come forward, how to read the prospects and pitfalls. One does not make it to Harvard and the U.S. Senate without considerable ability at political compromise and social skills. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes of him (9.19.2010): The first African-American president, who wrote in his memoir that he trained himself as a young man not to let his anger show in a suspicious white society, now faces anger on an unprecedented scale from a mostly white movement. What that observation might also suggest is that—at the presidential level—it is time, if not of necessity, and prudence, to adopt a more proactive, not reactive and, yes, angry mode. Have reached the pinnacle of political power, Mr. Obama seems not to have the personality to govern with his own determination. The skills to get there are not the same as needed once he has made it.


This might also account for the seeming disconnect between Mr. Obama’s considerable oratorical abilities and his weakness at ad libbing. On the big stage, and supported by his teleprompters, he is formidable, but on the Letterman Show he might make, as he did, a stupid and disingenuous remark like he did about the Special Olympics. Back in the 1970s George Lucas made a prescient film, THX 1138, about a future overregulated society in which Black people were only given jobs as entertainers on television. When one of them is suddenly freed from a life that existed only in the studio, he is unable to function. A similar difficulty might afflict a Black man who has made his way up the ladder of success in racist American society. The constant awareness of how one is, or might be perceived, of modulating ambition with not seeming “ambitious,” of being intelligent, but not “uppity.” Such negotiations might explain why Mr. Obama seems too conciliatory, where he should impose his own will, too eager to gain the “acceptance” of his political adversaries, even after multiple snubs and rejections.


Of late, the President has taken on, at least rhetorically, a more aggressive political stance, especially as the off-year elections do not bode well for his party. But it is typical of him to be reactive, to come out when forced out, to fight reluctantly, and only as long as necessary. His passivity and tardiness on the health care fight, and in dealing with Wall Street, his lack of boldness in his appointments to his cabinet, are another side of lack of assertiveness. Perhaps this is partly understandable by contrast with presidents who have come from the more elite levels of society. Often contrasted with FDR, or JKF, Obama comes off as one unaccustomed to taking charge, to acting decisively, perhaps because that was not his experience in making is way up.


At the same time, Obama does not come from the traditional African-American background; not history of slavery, or rural South to ghetto north legacy. And maybe that explains the composure, the lack of apparent anger, the lack of impatience from the long wait, that lack of an experiential connection to the sufferings of the African-American experience that might have modulated his style in more effective directions. For example, in a recent town hall meeting on television regarding jobs creation, the President was told by a citizen in an intimate forum how his personal economic situation had deteriorated, losing his job and being forced in to debt. But when the President responded, by the second sentence he had lost engagement with the questioner, and was of listing his “accomplishments” and shifting his head in his teleprompter fashion. He was getting his message out again, and the chance to connect with the questioner (and hence the individuals in his local and viewing audiences) the way Clinton could, was gone. It may be that the President’s “skill set” is best at the macro level, the inaugural address, or the joint session, but the connection at the micro level (“all politics is local”) is wanting. At the town hall meeting one could almost see eyes beginning to glaze over, and I switched to another channel, mumbling “well, I’ve heard all this before.”


I am psychologizing here, territory in which I should tread carefully because of my lack of credentials and less contact with the president than the man who told his tale of woe at the town hall meeting. But one keeps searching for what went awry here. There have been those who have told me that they saw this failing in Mr. Obama well before I, like so many others, was painting my FDR hopes on him during those inspirational campaign speeches. I desperately want to see this man succeed; even if he is turning out not to be my FDR, even if he seems well below that standard, even if I would have preferred someone with the values of Kucinich, and Grayson, Mr. Obama is all we have right now against the barbarians (and I mean that literally) from the political Right that would, might, take this country to the dark ages. But liberals are different; for them the end does not justify the means, and that requires we must be critical of this President as necessary to bring about his success. Liberals and progressives have been pretty rough of Mr. Obama of late. We do not stand in is shoes, but those are the shoes he chose. Our critical faculties are the way we deal with the world in a realistic, not a fanciful and fanatical, way. It is said that “half a loaf is better than none,” but half an education, half a medical cure, half of what your pension or salary used to be, air and water that are half as healthy as they used to be, and, yes, even wars half resolved, only end up being half of that yet again. We need a president who thinks that way—wholeheartedly.
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© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.12.2010)

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