In the fall of 2008 Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, delivered a lecture entitled “Confronting Obama: A Primer on Race and Empire for the New U.S. President.” Professor Kelley’s audience was large and sympathetic: undergraduates, fellow professors, and retired academics in the main. I was there too.
Kelley began his talk bowing and scraping to memory the deceased rabble-rousing intellectual gadfly for whom the overall lecture series was named, a genuflection required of all speakers in the series. His audience endured the ritual politely, but was clearly impatient to get to the good stuff. Their impatience was rewarded.
For over an hour Kelley held forth, his congregation raptly attentive. His every mention of Obama’s name was responded to by huzzahs. His caution not to take for granted the election of candidate Obama was followed up by the chant so dear to the professoriate and its acolytes: “Racism! Classism! Sexism!”
Toward the end of the sermon, as I was enjoying the usual somnolent effect the lefty doxology has on me, I was jolted into full attentiveness by Kelley’s startling conclusion that candidate Obama would say what he needed to say in order to secure election, but that we, the savvy intelligentsia, could easily interpret the campaign code of centrist rhetoric and parse the radical mysteries beneath it. I was stunned. And believe me, having spent as many years as I have in the belly of the academic beast, there is little in the way of leftist glossolalia that can shock me. Kelley’s speech did, and my hat’s off to the man.
What I found so hard to believe was not only the open admission from a supporter that Obama was working hard to deceive voters into thinking that he was something he was not, but that a room full of purportedly intelligent, ethical people were cheering on the deception. What I did not find so hard to believe was the communion of speaker and listeners, united in their smug assessment of their superior intellect and their contempt for the American voter. That much was business as usual. Kelley’s extraordinary if unflattering honesty about Obama was not.
So here we are a little more than a year later, one-quarter of the way through what has all the makings of a failed presidency. Unemployment is sky-high; economists are nervous about a double-dip recession; our staunchest ally has just raised its terror alert; and our president has done little more than lecture citizens on their shortcomings. Like a common scold, Obama has lectured us on everything from where to set our thermostats to our inability to evaluate evidence before jumping to conclusions to our choices for the evening news.
The president, of course, doesn’t see things in quite the same way. Like Kelley, he believes that Americans are a little slow on the uptake and need his guidance. Consider his conversation this week with George Stephanopoulis. Says the president, using the pronoun royal, “we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values. And that I do think is a mistake of mine. I think the assumption was, if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on the, you know this provision, or that law, or are we making a good, rational decision here [Stephanopoulis’s interruption omitted] that people will get it.” In other words, the American people are even dumber than he thought during his campaign: they don’t “get it.” Time to trot out the “core values” rhetoric that Kelley so shrewdly identified as bait-and-switch.
Of course the president goes on to explain to Stephanopoulis why we don’t “get it.” Our judgment has been clouded by the white-hot rage we continue to feel about George Bush. We lack the rationality to appreciate Obama’s tinkering with “this provision” or “that law” because we “are angry, and…frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”
A positive take-away at last. Bush and Obama are indistinguishable. This must mean we are finally judging our presidents by the content of their character and not by the color of their politics.