|The Obama haters|
Published: Sep 18, 2012
The quadrennial U.S. presidential marathon is a contest to elect a head of state and head of government who combines many roles including that of commander-in-chief and national myth-keeper in chief.
As it was from the beginning of the American Republic, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are battling over who best represents and who may best interpret the patriotic narratives of America for his contemporaries.
The frustration for Romney and company is that his often poorly-tuned invocation of “America the Beautiful” has failed to drown out the ruffles and flourishes of “Hail to the Chief” which accompany Obama as he navigates the demands of the presidency with a confidence and cool driving his haters to distraction.
Having failed to knock Obama off his stride, Romney gambled that it was time for a Hail Mary pass. With U.S. diplomats and interests under siege in Egypt and Libya, Romney connived an opening to smear Obama with the vulgar contempt of those who cast him as an illegitimate president of the United States: Obama sympathizes with America’s enemies. He is an apologist for America’s values. He isn’t one of us! And, these are the polite words. They barely conceal subtexts and dog whistles like the hoods which barely disguised those Klu Klux Klan apostles who burnt crosses Saturday night before changing to worship at the foot of the cross on Sunday morn.
But why mince words? Many of the Obama-haters believe that he is a sort of bastard, an American potcake, who can never make a legitimate claim to being a full child of America. After all, how can this product of the union of a black Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas even presume that he is good enough to be president?
Romney’s assaults on Obama’s Americanism, including a joke about birth certificates, are deployed to reach voters contemptuous of the president as a heretic bent on destroying the fundamental tenets of the American creed.
Many of those who claim to be the real Americans are alarmed at the browning of America, a demographic shift that will eventually lead to more black and Latino Americans combined than white Americans.
And along comes Obama, a black man, intellectually-gifted, graceful and street-smart, defying stereotypes and racial profiling even as he reinterprets, in his person and in his oratory, the American story while claiming full membership in that narrative arc.
An anecdote in the New Yorker is revelatory. The late Tim Russert retold a story from one of his sources that in wooing the late Ted Kennedy for an endorsement for his wife during the 2008 Democratic Party nominating contest, Bill Clinton said to Kennedy of Obama: “A few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags.”
If Bill Clinton could concoct such a thought, imagine the venom towards Obama coursing through the minds and hearts of those whose hatred of him is searing. This hatred is not solely about his policies, most of which have been centrist, including that of health care reform.
What offends the Obama haters is that he does not represent, indeed he is the cosmopolitan antithesis of, that old-time home-grown American religion steeped in white supremacy, American exceptionalism and triumphalism, and a narrow Christian fundamentalism.
Obama is not a fundamentalist in terms of religion nor of the narrow civic religion of those who view any criticism of American as apostasy. One of his favorite thinkers, the brilliant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, warned America of the perils and conceit of American exceptionalism.
Obama is comfortable with nuance, paradox and irony. A constitutional lawyer, he seeks to utilize long-held traditions and values to secure progressive ends such as on health care and equality for gays and lesbians, driving his opponents mad.
In one breath he condemned the anti-Muslim video which sparked outrage by some Muslims while upholding the right of free speech, something it took Romney a few days to figure out. While he may have had missteps, he values religious freedom and is a man of faith. Obama is not bent on a war against religion.
City on a hill
Obama can conceive of America as a Shining City on a Hill. Yet he knows that America has often hidden its light under a bushel from its inception, denying blacks, women and others the privilege and protection of certain truths which were supposed to be evident. He can revel in how exceptional is America, without giving in to jingoism.
Obama knows that America can be a force for good in the world. He knows too the underside of the American superpower. While he has a vision of America’s destiny, he eschews the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.
As evident from his 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention, he does not perceive America simply through black and white or red and blue, but in mixed hues such as purple, which is also threatening to those who pine for a monochromatic white-bread America.
For these who narrowly conceive America in their image and likeness, America the Beautiful was more beautiful when the gays were in the closet, women walked several paces behind their husbands, the Mexicans were south of the border, Muslims were in another land, and when a white man sat in the chair first occupied by George Washington.
Those who are wishing for a return to those days are Whistling Dixie. Obama threatens their worldview. Even worse, he has put together an electoral coalition -- of women, blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, young voters and others -- that will continue to grow in numbers.
The grandees of the GOP are alarmed by this combination which is making the Democrats more competitive in presidential races in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado.
The 2012 National Conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties showcased the master narratives of the two parties. There were more black custodial workers at the Republican convention than there were black delegates. The GOP’s attempt to showcase diversity at its convention was a comic flop.
Conventions are about storytelling and the telling of personal narratives linking various speakers to the broader American story. Arguably, the best of these was told by Michelle Obama. The Democrats captured the broader trend of America with themes of inclusion and equality, while the GOP seemed stuck in a time warp.
Then there was Bill Clinton who gave the case for Obama’s reelection. He did something even more. Bubba telegraphed to white voters that Obama was the country’s best hope.
America has come a long way. The vice-presidential running mates of a Mormon Republican and a black Democrat are Roman Catholic. Leading the ceremony welcoming home the bodies of the four U.S. personnel killed in Libya were a black president and a female secretary of state. After Obama finished speaking, Clinton reached over and grasped his hand.
This was not only another demonstration of solidarity between former rivals. It spoke also to the evolving story of America. Upon taking office Obama replaced the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with that of Martin Luther King Jr. Symbols and icons are windows into myths and stories.
Because Inauguration Day 2013 falls on a Sunday, the new president will take the oath of office on Sunday the 20th, while the public ceremony will take place on the Monday, which by happenstance is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
If it is Barack Obama who takes the oath, the symbolism will be extraordinary, another defining moment in the evolving history of America the Beautiful where a man with a name like Obama can equally be an icon of the American experience as can someone surnamed Washington, Jefferson, Madison or Lincoln.
Note: Next week’s column, “The Student Experience in Education”, will continue a series on reform in public education. This week’s column was written to coincide with events related to the U.S. presidential contest.
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