Standing Martin Luther King on His Head

by Michael Knox Beran

State of the Union addresses were becoming nauseating circuses before President Obama, full of cheap applause lines and degrading demagoguery. But the unique circumstances of the Obama presidency have dissolved the checks which ordinarily discourage a politician from crossing the line that separates run-of-the-mill political obfuscation from out-and-out fantasy.

President Obama claimed last night to have “cleared away the rubble of crisis,” but after four years of trillion-dollar deficits and unprecedented spending, the economy remains stagnant and indeed contracted in the last quarter. The president’s program of “reigniting” the “true engine of America’s economic growth” through more government spending and higher taxes continues to cripple the economy, yet last night he touted the failed policies once again, and went so far as to spin them as a success story.

Ordinarily a politician whose rhetoric diverges so far from the reality of his record would be run out of town, but with this president it is different. After four years of mediocre leadership, the majority of Americans continue to judge Barack Obama not on what he has done but on who he is. In an ironic reversal of the criteria of judgment set forth by Martin Luther King, they judge him not on the content of his character (or more precisely his actions and achievements) but on the color of his skin. The president is therefore exempt from the penalties other democratically elected leaders pay when they offend too egregiously against the truth; unlike them, he can stray into the realm of fantasy with impunity.

This is the curse of identity politics, but there are some grounds for believing that it will not permanently disfigure the country’s politics. The majority of Americans have decided that, whatever his faults, this president must be deemed a success, even if he has not actually succeeded — must be allowed to take his greatness honoris causa in lieu of his failure really to have earned it. There may be wisdom in the judgment that eight years of dubious leadership is a small price to pay for the sake of the symbolic value of the spectacle. One only wishes that the president had the self-knowledge to recognize the gift that has been conferred upon him, and the humility to acknowledge that his success derives, not from the flawed policies he continues to pursue, but from an act of electoral grace and favor.

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