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Obama Gets Elbowed in the Face, Isn't Black Enough

As if an actual elbow to the face wasn't enough...

In the wake of the pickup-game-elbowing President Obama received last week, Washington Post Metro columnist Courtland Milloy raises the question of whether President Obama suppresses his personality to please white America, a topic we haven't heard much about since the early days of Obama's presidency. (The definitive mainstream media discussion point on Obama's racialized perceptions, as far as I'm aware, was Nia-Malika Henderson's story in Politico in March 2009.)

Here's Milloy:

By most accounts, Obama acts like a black man behind closed doors. He talks trash while shooting hoops, talks Chicago South Side tough with his aides and conveys a range of emotions, including anger.

Once in public, though, he demurs - as if upholding some unspoken bargain with white America to never look like an angry black man in exchange for continued off-the-charts "likability" ratings and a shot at reelection in 2012.

It's bad enough that there are so few black men in public life who can be thought of as feared and respected - except for athletes such as, say, LeBron James. No black "Hammer" in the House, as Tom DeLay was called. No black arm-twisting Dick Cheney or in-your-face Rahm Emanuel lurking in the West Wing. Not even a black James Carville just to show up and harass the opposition.

But for a black president to apparently choose to be the Great Placator is downright embarrassing. ...

First of all, "Black Hammer" sounds like a 1970s film starring either Richard Roundtree or Isaac Hayes, and such a president would undoubtedly bust heads while also violating many police regulations. Black Dick Cheney also sounds intriguing. Black Bush was a lot funnier. But it seems unfair to hold Obama to such standards.

Obama has indeed taken a lot of criticism for not being "tough" enough, and Milloy ties that in to 1) Obama's failure to seem more proud about getting elbowed in the lip during that recent pick-up game, and 2) his race.

There's an epistemological problem in this kind of personal analysis: It's tough to know exactly what President Obama is like "behind closed doors." There are only a few ways we can know. The private Obama, as we hear of him, is necessarily either being observed by a journalist and knows he's being observed, or is described to us by people with investments in his political career and public image. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is alive and well when it comes to Obama's private life.

Milloy isn't the only one to use the face-elbow as an opportunity to prod Obama to be more aggressive. Progressive Campaign Change Committee founder Adam Green (whom, I would bet actual money on, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had in mind when he referred to the "professional left" in an interview with The Hill's Sam Youngman) sent an email to his supporters shortly after the elbow-news broke, with the subject line "Elbow to the face...", criticizing Obama for ignoring the advice of liberals who want him to be tougher on the GOP—a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own advice that Obama metaphorically punch Republicans in the face.

It's impossible to read those criticisms and not reflect on the position in which Obama, or any president for that matter, finds himself: ceaselessly shoved in various and opposing directions by people who have strong ideas of what they want him to be. As the first black president, race just seems like another dimension of that problem, another venue for such criticism to take place.

That's got to be a little tiresome. Especially when you just got elbowed in the face.