In 2012, when Barack Obama won reelection, an odd but thrilling metaphor engulfed me. The election was like the climax of one of those early Howard Fast novels. After enduring months of derision of their leader as somehow unAmerican and countless maneuvers to curtail their right to vote and incessant tirades against the poor for taking, not giving, after enduring all the despicable attempts to belittle and suppress them, the poor and the blacks and the Hispanics and the young and the women united and arose to defend their hero and astound and frighten all the smug fat cats. “What a wonderful thing is metaphor,” wrote Christopher Fry in one of his plays.
Well, so much for metaphor. Another election has come and gone, and it inspires no flights of imagery, only gloom and cold and a half-hearted need to figure out what really happened. There has been a lot of noise about this on the talk shows and in the editorial columns, and I don’t want to just add to it. But I have a few thoughts.
We have a steady electorate in this country of proud citizens, educated patriots and party stalwarts who feel it is their duty to vote in every election. Their total is well below half the eligible voters. Their numbers are augmented in each election by enthusiasts who come forth because they are excited by a candidate or an idea or a fashion. Presidential elections attract many more enthusiasts than other elections. In this year’s election, many of the people once excited by Obama stayed home, either because he had lost their enthusiasm or because they did not believe the election was about him. The turnout was 36% of the electorate, the lowest since 1942. The enthusiasts who came out were those Americans excited by their anger at Obama or hatred for him. To them, the election was really about him.
Why all the anger and hatred? One aspect that we cannot discount is racism. There are whites who can not accept a black man as president. Almost everybody now knows that is not a reason to offer in public. So they began harping at first about his supposed lack of a birth certificate, his socialist European ways, his father bristling with anti-colonial dogma. All this was euphemism. People were saying that he was different, not a real American, but they meant he was black.
These euphemisms were too obvious. The second term gave those who abhor him a better weapon to wield against him — that he is simply not up to the job. Some erudite pundits have called him “feckless.” Now feckless is not a word we used when I grew up in the Bronx. But it sounds like an awful thing to be. The expression comes from an old Scots word “feck” that means “effect” in English. So a feckless person is someone without feck or effect, someone who is ineffective. The word has also come to mean that a person is feeble, careless and irresponsible. In short, our feckless President can’t get anything done, puttering around weakly without a clear idea on how to fix a problem. It sounds much better to detest your President because he is feckless than to detest him because you think his birth certificate is phoney.
Though fecklessness was a good cover for racists, I am not trying to suggest that everyone angry at the feckless President was a racist. Far from it. Many Americans were upset that Congress was paralyzed and incapable of taking up any meaningful issue and passing legislation to deal with it. The irony, of course, is that the main responsibility for this lies with the Republican Party. From the first day of his administration, Republicans were determined to try to obstruct everything Obama proposed and bring him down. This was no secret. They boasted about it. They failed to prevent his reelection, but they succeeded in demeaning the presidency, the Congress and the American system of democratic government. Yet most of the blame, in the eyes of voting Americans, has fallen on Obama, the main victim. No matter who caused the paralysis, Americans seem to believe, a president is supposed to lead us out of it. The result was a great victory for the art of obstruction.
Obama is not blameless. His coolness is so persistent that it even irritates some of his admirers. He has renowned oratorical skills, and the office of the president, while far from the bully pulpit of TR’s times, still gets a lot of attention. Yet Obama has often turned his back on these advantages. Three failures trouble me the most.
The most obvious was the failure to denounce the Republicans again and again for the obstructionism that was fouling the American way of government. Harry Truman never forgot to denounce the “do-nothing 80th Congress,” and his incessant branding helped him astound the pundits with his reelection. Obama, on the other hand, stood above the fray and acted as if he could somehow persuade the belligerent Republicans to deal with him. That was a woeful misjudgment.
Obama also failed to expose the true nature of all the state voting restrictions — a blatant attempt to hold down the numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters. Republicans, of course, would have attacked him for “playing the race card.” But that cynical whine would have deserved contempt. Obama should have preached continually that these efforts harped back to the awful days when Jim Crow laws and practices restricted black voting in the South. Few Americans know much about the poll taxes and phoney literacy tests that once prevented blacks from voting. Obama should have painted terrible pictures of those days and made it clear that the new restrictions are tarred with the same filthy brushes as the old ones. Of course, the President did set his Justice Department after these restrictions. But he had the moral right as our first African-American president to cry out shame and to do so often.
The final failure was the most troublesome. Obama took over as president during the worst economic times since the Great Depression. He did or tried to do all the right things — a public works stimulus, a rise in the minimum wage, an extension of unemployment pay, a program for repairing bridges and other infrastructure, and so on. But I never had the feeling that he understood and shared our pain. When I was a boy, our family sat together by a radio to hear FDR’s fireside chats. It was not a good era for us. My father was a paperhanger, and even the rich did not change their wallpaper very often during a depression. We were not sure FDR could help us, but we knew he understood our problems and felt our pain. We would never fault him for our troubles. We knew he empathized with us and would do all possible to help us.
I do not want to go overboard with this. The irrational hatred of Obama had more to do with the Republican victories than the aloofness of Obama. But the strange aloofness of Obama is a vital part of the equation as well.