We are nine months into President Barack Obama’s first term and the barbs are flying. By some accounts he’s a Nazi, by others he’s a Communist, by still others he sees George Orwell’s 1984 as an instruction manual rather than a cautionary tale. In the midst of his nationally televised address to Congress on health care reform, a congressman from South Carolina, a famously intemperate state which started the American Civil War in 1861 to keep its slaves, yelled “You lie!”
Former President Jimmy Carter sees the barbs as racially charged: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country is an African-American should not be president.”
Many? Some, certainly. Broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, who speaks for and to what might be thought of as the Republican Party’s id, spoke last week about “Obama’s America” as a place where “white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering “right on, right on, right on”.” The reference was to an incident in which a couple of black teenagers were caught on video punching a white schoolmate on a bus in what police have determined was a bout of common or garden bullying. Limbaugh’s distortion of the facts to stoke antipathy against Obama, and black people generally, was pure Goebbels.
It would also be a distortion to exaggerate the role of race as a factor driving opposition to Obama. To most of his opponents, his besetting sin is that he is a Democrat and that he believes that government has a role to play in smoothing the Darwinian edges of American life, which may mean caring about those of God’s children on whom fate has smiled less fondly. That their taxes should go to such supposedly Big Brother-ish endsA gives great offence to not a few Americans who attend church regularly.
Party affiliation, and the prejudices that go with it, are pretty hardwired here. Elections are generally won and lost on marginal shifts among independents. Obama may have won by the largest margin since Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964, but he still got only 53% of the vote. Nearly half the voting electorate went for the other guy, mostly because he was a Republican, not a Democrat. That they should be opposing Obama now is to be expected.
Don’t be disheartened. Obama is anything but down. To put things in perspective, remember where the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was at this stage in his first term. His own attempt at health care reform, likewise framed as his Waterloo, was floundering. He was already snared in a slough of scandal his enemies had managed to whip up — in many instances fabricate — from his days as governor of Arkansas.
By Clinton’s standards, Obama is doing well. He still has a good shot at signing health care legislation which, while not as sweeping as some might have wished, will create enough new facts that the current system will not be recognisable 10 years hence. Neither his integrity nor his family values have been called into question. Clinton at this point was already fixed in everyone’s mind as “Slick Willie”. The epithets directed at Obama — Nazi, Communist, Socialist — are so puerile and ill-educated that, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox television network, which panders to the American id, the mainstream media treats them with the contempt they deserve. Limbaugh’s racism helps in that department as well.
When critics have to resort to complaining that Obama relies too much on his teleprompter when giving speeches — this is starting to become a meme among my conservative friends — you have to conclude he is confounding them. If the best they can do to counter the undoubted spell of his oratory is to complain that he has not learned his speeches off by heart, they have run out of ideas.
They would love him to engage them on the race issue. They yearn for him to morph into the Rev Jesse Jackson or the Rev Al Sharpton and start playing on white guilt and the white desire not to “go there” any more than is absolutely necessary. But Obama won’t play. He has shrugged off the Carter critique of his opponents and declines to dignify the Limbaugh libel with a response. He is not interested in getting entangled in those weeds. As far as he’s concerned, the only way to kill the weeds is to be a successful president.
I’m an optimist. I still think a majority of Americans want Obama to succeed, both because his success will benefit them directly, and because it will put one more nail in the coffin of the stereotype to which people like Limbaugh appeal. But I’m not yet ready to bet on it. False consciousness is not a concept I ever expected to embrace, but as I see Americans embrace empty slogans over their own best interest, it is a phrase that resonates.