Thursday, January 28, 2010

Expecting Too Much

President Obama's popularity among Democrats remains sky-high. But as his presidency turns into its second year, Republicans are increasingly hostile toward, and independents increasingly disillusioned about, Obama 44.

Race may indirectly play a role in the disappointment of many respondents toward the President, who in his State of the Union message last night acknowledged

Now, I am not naïve. I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways.

As he stated, Senator Obama never claimed his "election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era." In his famous "race speech," delivered on March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (not Philadelphia, Mississippi; that would be candidate Ronald Reagan's venue), the candidate declared

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

Nevertheless, Senator Obama immediately followed that by asserting

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

Still, Senator Obama continuously labored to disabuse Americans of the notion that he was the "black candidate," or should be elected because he is black, or that he would be a better president because he is black.

He didn't have to. The headline and first paragraph of The New York Times (online) on November 6, 2008 made it clear:

Obama Elected President As Racial Barrier Falls

Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.

At The Philadelphia Inquirer (hard copy), it was

Historic Win

Democrat Barack Obama, the 47-year-old son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, decisively won election yesterday as the nation's first African American president, a victory that seemed unthinkable a generation ago.

And on and on and on.

The coverage of Obama's victory mirrored a major theme, not of Obama himself but of his supporters virtually everywhere: "It is an historic election. We are on the verge of making history. Historic change is coming."

The election, the mainstream media seemed to tell us, was less about the failure of the previous eight years and rejection of the party that brought it to us and more about rejection of a racist past. Some people bought the line. They may have included the individuals who, after months of unprecedented coverage of the election campaign (and the primary season preceeding it) were undecided until election day. Wikipedia observed "On average, Obama received three percentage points more support in the primaries and caucuses than he did during polling." The train was leaving the station- don't miss it, or you may miss making history.

So it has been observed, though too seldom, that many Americans appear to feel betrayed. You've heard it- don't deny it. Citizens who argue that President Obama has not ushered in the era of bipartisanship (a different, but related, instinct) racial harmony they seem to believe he promised. And it doesn't help when MSNBC's Chris Matthews comments (video below) following the State of the Union address

You know,he's gone a long way to become leader of this country and past so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't think about. I was watching. I said wait a minute- he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people and there he is, President of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight- completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of his discusssion, it was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems and aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard, a very subtle fact,it's so hard to talk about, maybe I shouldn't talk about it.

Matthews is wrong when he says "maybe I shouldn't talk about it." Too seldom is race discussed, and at least Matthews has shown no reluctance to do so.

But he is really wrong, or dishonest, or simply foolish when he says "we've completely forgotten" that "he's an African=American guy in front of a bunch of other white people." Or that "it's something we do't think about." Talk about, no. Think about, yes.

Matthews doesn't make a fetish of objectivity, nor does he claim to be without feelings. Still, it is embarassing when a guy gets on television and says, with shades of "thrill up my leg," "it was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems and aspects, and aspects of American life." We ask of Obama that he be a good President- not the National Psychologist.

These remarks, with the suggestion that Mr. Obama supernaturally transcends his ethnic background, reinforce the mistaken notion that one individual can wipe out centuries of the American struggle with race. This approach leads only in one direction- to further disillusionment- and cannot have a happy ending.


Greg said...

Forgetting that Barack Obama was black for an hour because "the scope of his discusssion...was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems and aspects of American life" is undeniably a racist comment. So, because Obama is half-black, he can't possibly be as "in tune with so many problems of American life, right?" This is a disgraceful comment. This is partly why I lose faith in politics virtually every day.

Greg said...

Unfortunately, Chris isn't encouraged to apologize for saying something stupid. I don't actually think he's racist, simply that I would've preferred an apology over a "clarification" about what he said. He shouldn't talk down to his viewers about what he said, we heard what he said.

You're right that race should be discussed, but Chris Matthews has lost virtually any credibility to discuss the subject.

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