Tempering the Clash Within
The various images of Barack Obama cast as a Nazi that have emerged over the last year are, without question, reprehensible; but understanding the pictures, and speaking to the part of this nation that--if not directly printing the banners--gets a hearty chuckle out of them, is crucial to ending the political stalemate at hand.
The images are perhaps less about Obama than his supporters and the fervent groundswell that he inspired. Hitler was a particularly diminutive figure; it was the masses he inspired, and the intensity of their blind faith in him, that allowed for the horrors of the Holocaust. Rightly or wrongly, the banners are a rejection of the uninformed, evangelist-style following the bearers believe lifted a candidate with thin credentials and few policy prescriptions to the presidency. "We just don't know anything about him," was the most oft heard phrase in the movement's nascent stage.
It is, then, with a great deal of laughter and a good sense of irony, that we, the self-ordained, righteous liberals, watch clips like those Max Blumenthal has produced, showing members of the movement's unintelligible responses to basic questions when confronted about their positions.
But the joke is likely on us. To begin with, people lacking on-camera training nearly always balk when lenses and microphones are jammed in their faces, regardless of their politics. Unless you live in D.C., studying talking points each morning before coffee is considered rather unusual.
More importantly, the joke is on us because the "crazies" have proved capable of wielding substantial influence. Their ferocity rattled representatives and senators to perhaps an unprecedented degree last summer as Congress broke for recess amid the health care debate. They've given Republican Senate leaders the political cover to stall nearly the entirety of the president's legislative agenda, to prevent him from making even basic appointments.
But those in question are not just tea partiers; these are not simply birthers. These are sane, educated individuals, many of whom disapproved of Bush era policies, but who voted en masse against Obama's vision of change nonetheless. These are people who see a good deal right with America, who are wary of the grand ambitions to "fundamentally" change a nation that has, to their eyes, performed quite well.
This is a section of the country that is, perhaps, even offended by the idea of radical change, and the implicit, condemnatory undertone that America, and thus those who worked tirelessly to build it, somehow fell short.
To what extent Obama's race has played into the vitriol is obviously a point of contention. Many hold that charges of "arrogance," and irritation with the way the president, at moments, holds his head back with his chin held high, are really examples of veiled xenophobia. Search results for Obama + arrogant on Google exemplify this.
During the campaign, what liberals saw as a magnificent biography epitomizing the promise of America, this movement instead recognized as a volatile, fatherless childhood with exposure to hostile lands and thought. Where we see soaring rhetoric and eloquence, they see dictatorial grandstanding.
Jonathan V. Last has an interesting piece in the Weekly Standard that argues against the charges of racism. It speaks to this wary sentiment and the hesitancy of non-intellectual Democrats to align with Obama.
"The Jacksonian Democrats tended to be white and working-class; the academics tended to be highly educated, and often government employees. This divide is often attributed to latent racism in the Jacksonians. But a suspicion of Barack Obama shouldn't make you a racist. Consider the case of Buchanan County, a Jacksonian stronghold on the Virginia border next to both West Virginia and Kentucky. Obama lost Buchanan County to Hillary Clinton by a margin of 90 to 9. Which might make one view Buchananites with some suspicion--except that in the 1989 gubernatorial race, Douglas Wilder won Buchanan County by 18 points over his (white) Republican rival."
Regardless of where we fall on this issue, the president's race and biography remain; his message of resounding change, though, can be tamped down. The reality that his reforms--particularly health care--are rather centrist, can be given far greater volume and more reverberation in the echo chamber.
In an interview last fall, Bill Clinton, when asked about the difficulty of change, told me: "Machiavelli said in the 15th century that change is hard because the people who would benefit from it are uncertain of their gain and the people who would lose are positive of their loss." He raised his eyebrows and chuckled, "And that's pretty much the way it still is."
If Obama is to succeed, he'll have to convey that the nation is not at stake, that his reforms are not meant to re-imagine this nation anew, and that they do not come at the expense of those that voted against him.
The traction that Obama's revisionist message garners on the left has proven outweighed by the vitriol in spawns on the right. Thus, the president, rather than saying that he seeks to "move the country in a fundamentally different direction," should better situate his reforms squarely among the most American of traditions.
Perhaps the only thing that unifies this nation now is the feeling that we've reached a crossroads. Whether it's the fear of climate change and nuclear proliferation or a black president who has promised massive revisions, we are united by the sense that we have reached a historical hinge.
The politics of change have given way to the politics of fear, and that, we can agree, is not a healthy place. For any of us.