As the campaign heats up, one problem is that we continue to meet lots of different Barack Obamas — to such a degree that we don’t know which, if any, is really president.
I think the president believes that private-equity firms harm the economy and that their CEOs are at best indifferent and sometimes unsympathetic to the struggle of average Americans. I say “I think” because Obama has himself collected millions of dollars from such profit-driven firms, and uses their grandees to raise cash for his reelection. Cynical, hypocritical, or unaware? You decide.
I think the president is in favor of publicly funded campaign financing but against super PACs; but again I say “I think” because Obama renounced the former and embraced the latter. Are Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, and preventive detention constitutional necessities or threats to our security? Some of Obama’s personalities have said they are bad; others apparently believe them to be good.
One Barack Obama crisscrosses the country warning us that a sinister elite has robbed from the common good and must atone for destroying the economy. Another Barry Obama hits the golf links in unapologetically aristocratic fashion and prefers Martha’s Vineyard for his vacation. So I am confused about the evil 1 percent. Obama 1 feels they have shorted the country and must now pay their fair share, while Obama 2 feels they are vital allies in helping the poor by attending his $40,000-a-plate campaign dinners.
Barry Obama respects those who make billions from Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook, but Barack Obama does not respect those who make billions from oil, farming, and construction. Is Wall Street the source of our national problems or the source of the president’s political salvation? There is an Obama who runs against a prep-schooled mansion-living member of the elite; there is another Obama who was a prep-schooled mansion-living member of the elite.
I thought one Obama swore to us that borrowing $5 trillion was vital — Keynesian pump priming, stimulus, averting 8 percent–plus unemployment, and all that. But now another Obama claims that his serial $1 trillion deficits are proof not of “growth” of the sort that improved GDP and reduced unemployment, but rather of fiscal discipline that stopped reckless Republican spending. So Obama over the last four years brought both austerity that checked wild Bush spending, and also Keynesian growth that snapped us out of the Bush lethargy? Spending is saving? Record deficits are record fiscal restraint?
Lots of Obamas keep talking about civility and bringing us together; but lots more Obamas talk about punishing our enemies, emphasizing racial differences, and formally organizing supporters by racial groupings. An angelic Obama lectures about the end of red-state/blue-state divides; a less saintly Obama refers to xenophobic clingers, typical white persons, stereotypers, and arresters of children on their way to ice-cream parlors.
I recall that once upon a time Obama derided fossil fuels, bragging that “millions of new green jobs” would accrue from subsidizing wind and solar power and “bankrupting” coal companies, as energy prices would accordingly “skyrocket.” But then once upon another time, Obama bragged that on his watch we are pumping more oil than ever before, apparently because private firms ignored his pleas and drilled despite his efforts to shut down leasing on public lands. So we are to credit Obama for stopping oil leasing on public lands, which forced greater production on private lands, while being impressed that he lost billions subsidizing doomed solar and wind companies? When the government fails to promote new energy, that constitutes success because those outside the government then must do more? Do the various Obamas represent both the good but failed intention and the bad successful one?
Unfortunately, the paradoxes involve more than just the usual flipflopping of all politicians. They strike to the heart of who is, and is not, Barack Hussein Obama.
The fringe Birthers made outlandish claims for years that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was not eligible to be president. But suddenly, after nearly four years of his presidency, we discover that for over a decade and a half Obama’s own publicity bio listed him as Kenyan-born. Why and how did this happen — given that authors customarily write their own autobiographies and have annual opportunities to edit them? Did Obama think that to fudge an identity might make his book on a mixed-race heritage more saleable in 1991, and then himself more exotic as a state legislator and senator in the ensuing 16 years — but for some reason not as a presidential candidate?
What is real and what is not? The Obama “composite” girlfriend who sort of existed and sort of did not? Was there one Obama named Barry and another who became Barack, one with the middle name Hussein that was taboo to utter in the campaign of 2008 and another with the middle name Hussein that after January 20, 2009, was supposed to resonate in the Muslim world?
One Obama was the constitutional-law professor at the prestigious University of Chicago; another was a part-time lecturer who never published and was rarely seen or heard at the law school. One Obama was a brilliant Harvard Law Review editor; another never wrote an article. One Obama had the highest IQ of any entering president and was indeed the smartest man we ever elected commander-in-chief; another Obama proved it by not releasing his college transcripts. One Obama is the fittest and most energetic of recent presidents; another Obama is the most secretive and reluctant about proving it through the customary releasing of medical records.
To be fair, Barack Obama wrote a memoir explaining how he had no identity, given the absence of his father, the serial trips of his mother, and his need not to be biracial, but sometimes black, sometimes white, in the manner that he had to be and not to be part of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Chicago community, and to vote present in the Illinois state legislature in order to be for and against what you must be for and against. Dr. Barack and Mr. Obama can both dutifully attend worship services “every Sunday” at Trinity United Church of Christ and emulate the pastor’s writing and speaking — and yet only occasionally drop in, to get married and to hear sonorous platitudes about self-help and healing.
Is Obama just the usual chameleon politician? Or is Obama emblematic of postmodern America, where there is no truth, but, like an Elizabeth Warren or a Ward Churchill, we legitimately are who we declare we are — and then again are not what we are when we choose not to be? Or is Barack Obama not a metaphor for much of anything other than the fact that it is harder to be president of the United States than to be at Harvard or Chicago Law School, the Illinois legislature or the U.S. Senate, where everyone declared that you did everything by doing not much at all?