The Impossibility of Being Barack Obama

Every now and then we see how hard his balancing act is.
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I half-heard the president's commencement address at Morehouse when coming back to D.C. this weekend. I saw a clip of it again late last night and thought: this is another sample and reminder of Barack Obama's reserves of rhetorical strength. Like his other big, punctuating speeches (as I have discussed previously here, here, here, and elsewhere), this one appealed to both the mind and the heart; it built an argument over a span of paragraphs rather than in isolated phrases; and it grew from Obama's position as a man part of, but also apart from, America's normal racial classifications.

Before I had a chance to write anything about the speech, I read two other reactions. One was from my former colleague Andrew Sullivan, who was defending the speech against idiotic accusations that it was "race-baiting" and too black. The other was from my current Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, who criticized the speech for being too hectoring of Obama's Morehouse audience in a way he wouldn't have been at Dartmouth or Stanford:

Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."

As I told Ta-Nehisi by phone this evening, I naturally cut Obama more slack on this point than he does. (And of course I hear the speech differently too.) We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own." I can hold Americans overseas to a different standard than I would Russians or Japanese; I can harangue (and have!) my colleagues in the press about why we should do better; I expect something from myself and my kids I wouldn't expect from you and your kids, and so on. The challenge for Obama, exactly as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, is that he is simultaneously addressing all Americans as his own (apart from those who consider him alien) while also in this speech addressing as his own the most historically distinct subset of our population.

So, I was glad to see Andrew Sullivan's defense; and I understood the logic of Ta-Nehisi Coates's frustrated criticism. Which led me to the main conclusion: about the near-impossibility of the tightrope act Barack Obama is attempting as America's first non-white president, and the unusual combination of virtuosity (as with this speech) and unflappability (as with criticism of the speech) with which he has mainly carried it off.

I increasingly think of Obama as walking a tiny, little rope suspended across a Grand Canyon. Through four and a half years he has mainly kept his footing, in a way that becomes cumulatively surprising -- and I say that even while disagreeing with many of his policies, notably including the recent security-state extensions.  Every now and then, as with this speech, we see how hard what he is doing is.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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