The Obama Riddle

The Obama Riddle

WASHINGTON — You wonder if President Obama sometimes finds himself singing a variant on Kermit the Frog’s anthem about the burdens of being green: It’s not easy being Barack Obama.

This is not simply or even primarily a matter of color, although the president’s racial background has been a source of both opportunity and trial. As the first African-American in the White House, he has won an unprecedented level of support in the black community and the good will of enough white Americans to build a national majority.

Yet it’s undeniable that racism lurks beneath so many of the preposterously false charges against him — that this son of Hawaii wasn’t really born in the United States, that he is a secret Muslim who “hates America,” that he’s animated by a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. Within the African-American community, his persistent emphasis on responsible fatherhood, a key theme of his recent commencement address at Morehouse College, is sometimes cast as a way of pandering to white prejudice by hectoring a community to which he owes a large and still unpaid political debt.

That’s just the start of it. Even more peculiar is an ongoing confusion over how he thinks and what he stands for.

Some of this is Obama’s own doing. He has been a master, as good politicians are, at presenting different sides of himself to different constituencies. In 2008, he was the man who would bring us together by overcoming the deep mistrust between red and blue America and the champion of progressive change, the liberal answer to Ronald Reagan.

Also like most successful politicians, Obama probably saw no contradiction between his two politically useful selves. Since so many of the red/blue divides are based on misunderstandings — as he said in 2004, blue-state folks worship “an awesome God” while red-staters care about their gay friends — getting past them would be easy enough. This, in turn, would open the way to a forward-looking approach to government. In 2012, he thought his re-election would “break the fever” on the right.

No such luck. For Obama’s rise was accompanied by a hardening of opinion in the Republican Party fostered by a long-term defection of moderates from the GOP primary electorate, the growing influence of right-wing media in shaping the conservative conversation, and the rise of the Tea Party and its allies as the most dynamic forces on the right end of politics. This has the effect of tugging the political center, as perceived and presented by the media, to the right, further distorting how Obama is viewed.

In fact, Obama is a tempered sort of progressive who repeatedly annoys his party’s left with an incessant pursuit of Republican support for “grand bargains” — one reason why his health care plan is so state-oriented and gives Republican governors and legislatures so much opportunity to undermine it.

But none of this has helped Obama with his adversaries on the right. They take any news that comes along, notably the IRS’ special scrutiny of Tea Party applications for 501(c)(4) status, and weave it into a pre-existing tale of a power-hungry, ultra-leftist centralizer of authority.

Perhaps the clearest look we’ve had at the real Obama was his national security speech last Thursday, an honestly agonized and intellectually serious appraisal of the difficulty of striking “the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.”

He left room for all his critics, left and right, to express dissatisfaction: He will pick up the pace of closing Guantánamo, but it will not close immediately; he’ll put restrictions on the use of drones, but won’t stop using them; he declared an end to the “global war on terror,” but pledged to “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”

This last bit — an attempt to displace a sweeping and terribly flawed definition of the anti-terror struggle with a careful, practical but also less stirring depiction of the task ahead — is a window on the Obama conundrum.

He’s an anti-ideological leader in an ideological age, a middle-of-the-road liberal skeptical of the demands placed on a movement leader, a politician often disdainful of the tasks that politics asks him to perform. He wants to invite the nation to reason together with him when nearly half the country thinks his premises and theirs are utterly at odds. Doing so is unlikely to get any easier. But being Barack Obama, he’ll keep trying.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is

AP Photo/Luis Alvarez

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