Writing on Obama and health care reform, Shelby Steele gives an incendiary thesis: Obama chose to pass the landmark social legislation because "his historical significance almost demands a kind of political narcissism." What Steele means is that Obama feels compelled to live up to the legacy of being the first black president. Yet Steele thinks little of his presidency so far:
Mr. Obama's success has always been ephemeral because it was based on an illusion: that if we Americans could transcend race enough to elect a black president, we could transcend all manner of human banalities and be on our way to human perfectibility. A black president would put us in a higher human territory. And yet the poor man we elected to play out this fantasy is now torturing us with his need to reflect our grandiosity back to us.
Steele employs enough nuance to avoid a full-scale riot in the blogosphere, but the few pundits who did respond--including an unusually irate Klein--lashed out angrily.
- 'Worst Op-Ed Ever' The even-tempered Klein immediately snapped, tweeting: "This might be the worst op-ed I've ever read." In a slightly less fulminating piece on his Washington Post blog, he claims Steele reduced revolutionary social legislation to a narcissistic legacy grab. "For Steele, it is not even worth considering the possibility that Obama pursued health-care reform -- like a half-dozen or so presidents before him -- because it was important, or even because there was not that much more he could do on jobs," he seethes. Turning to Steele himself, Klein doesn't mince words:
I have trouble imagining how someone can be interested enough in American politics to want to write an op-ed on the subject, but so unaware -- or uninterested -- in even basic facts about policy that this is the op-ed they'd write.
- Calm Down, Ezra At Mediaite, Frances Martel dryly notes the blogosphere finally knows how to get to Klein: "mediocre, semi-racist attacks on the President." Amused, he retorts, "'Sort of wrong, but there’s something to it' is probably the way most
readers wearily responded to [Steele's] column." Stepping away from attacks on Klein's dispassionate blogging style, Martel notes "it is nice to see a wonk like Klein rankled at all, gentle as his
reproach may be."
- Racist on its Face Open Salon's Ric Caric argues Steele's thesis demeans the decades-old struggle for civil rights. "Steele offers no credit to Obama or anyone else for the accomplishment--no acknowledgement of the generations of civil rights activists, everyday African-Americans, white liberals, or other minorities who made Obama's presidency possible," he says. As for Obama's decision to push health care reform, Caric deadpans: "Barack Obama didn't have to be black to have big ideas on domestic policy, he had to be a Democrat."
- It Ain't Easy Being Steele "Guys, it's really hard to be Shelby Steele," begins The American Prospect's Adam Serwer, who links to Steele's many misguided columns on Obama, from his guarantee that Obama would lose the presidential election to his repeated claims that health care reform would fail. "Steele's work helps conservatives cling to myths about liberal black folks being the products of white charity, and they don't contradict him because they don't actually know enough black people to know better," he sighs. Noting what other bloggers overlooked--Steele is a scholar for the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank--Serwer outlines Steele's increasingly intractable dilemma:
If conservatives figure out Steele's product is useless -- nay harmful -- then he doesn't get paid for it, and his irrelevance as an intellectual becomes apparent. Steele accuses Obama of being a "bound man," but he finds himself bound to propping up a thesis that one tsunami after another leaves in ruins.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.