"It took an accident to make this man this president of the United States. What they do to him now won't be an accident."
-- Advertisement for "The Man," 1972 movie about the first black president, staring James Earl Jones.
It was certainly no accident when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. It was one thing to promise "CHANGE" in block capital letters, but Obama looked and felt like "CHANGE" sent over from central casting. Sure, running and winning as the first black president was part of that -- many Americans were delighted that after 42 (Cleveland twice) white men, the diversity that you'd see on the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue was finally on display inside the house at No. 1600.
But I always felt that it was a lot more, that America simply needed a president who would be smart and rational and cool, who after too many years of right-wing craziness inside the Beltway believes -- in the words famously uttered by fictional Will McAvoy on the Newsroom -- "that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage."
The 5-year anniversary of Obama's presidency came and went with little fanfare, but with a much-anticipated State of the Union speech coming tomorrow, it's still an excellent time to reflect on how he's done. The president certainly made an interesting and controversial remark in the New Yorker last week when he said “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president."
Once again, I was reminded of "The Man" -- how a Hollywood movie 42 years ago imagined what things would be like for the first black president...and was remarkably prescient. When a freak accident kills the president and the House speaker and the vice president is too old and infirm, the Senate president pro tem, played by James Earl Jones, is sworn in. From Day One, powerful Beltway insiders seek not just to oppose the president but to de-legitimize him. On the other side of the coin, some blacks -- even his own daughter -- questioned (in that era of Black Power) whether the African-American president was radical enough.
Is any of this sounding familiar?
In five years under Obama, the glass is half-full -- as many as 10 million more have health insurance, the job market is moving glacially in the right direction with GM still a viable company, gay rights are on the rise. And the glass is half-empty, with an out-of-control surveillance state, a counterproductive civilian-killing drone war, as well as massive income inequality and intractable poverty. The president's words -- on every subject from the closing Gitmo to ending the wealth-gap -- are almost always spot-on, but the record of what he's actually done is very, very mixed.
Some of his problems are very much the result of Beltway insiders -- mainly Republicans -- using every tool under the Constitution to delegitimize his presidency. Yes, Obama's 2009 stimulus was too weak, but the GOP would have filibustered one more dollar. Yes, single-payer health care would have been much, much better than the confusion of Obamacare -- but that would never have been passed, either. There's plenty of ways to attack the crushing problem of long-term unemployment, but the GOP has not listened to any of them -- not when they use the jobless as a prop to bludgeon the president.
What they've tried to do to him is no accident.
But many of Obama's problems are self-inflicted, the product of his own timidity. Why, many ask, has he increased drone warfare, expanded government secrecy and allowed the National Security Administration to run amok in collecting data on innocent Americans, especially when he seems to be morally ambivalent at best about these programs? I think some of it is because at the end of the day he worries that aggressive moves to roll back the national security state -- despite massive evidence that militarization has been a destructive force in America -- would cause too many people to see him as "a radical." Even though a radical is what America needs in 2014.
After five years, President Obama has become "the man." After promising change, there is still a side of him that defers way too much to the spy agencies and to the Pentagon, that can't wean America off drone strikes even years after the military phase of the "terror war" should have ended, or quickly end an increasingly bewildering conflict in Afghanistan or really go after Wall Street when they make so many campaign donations. That's because at the end of the day, it matters to Obama -- and some of his more zealous supporters, too -- that he be seen not so much as a radical change agent as a man -- yes, "the man" -- who acts just like the 42 presidents who came before him.
Even if we are in a time that this is not the non-change America needs.
But it's impossible to look at five years of Obama with any sense of reason or proportion -- not when 40 percent of Americans want or need hm to be the Antichrist, while 40 percent are too quick to brush off his flaws with messianic fervor (and the other 20 percent are too busy watching ultimate fighting on TV). Even the "best" modern presidents have had a wildly mixed record, from LBJ (civil rights and Medicare but Vietnam) to Reagan (restored confidence while running massive debts) to FDR (New Deal but Japanese internment camps).
Our current commander-in-chief is clearly destined to be exactly like them. That is what no one will say about five years about Obama, that his record as 44th president is neither demonic nor angelic but a muddled mix of the good, the bad and the occasional ugly...just as it was fated to be.
The most telling comment that Obama made in the New Yorker piece was not about being a black president but simply when he said: “I just wanted to add one thing to that business about the great-man theory of history. The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing.”
Perhaps. The president has invested a lot politically in being No-Drama Obama, in never showing anger. But I can't help but think that maybe what America needs most in the 2010s -- more than the first black or woman or gay or Latino president, all wonderful milestones,now and in the future -- is the first angry president, because there's a lot tp be angry about, whether it's the policies that allowed 85 billionaires to possess as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people, the government invading our privacy or the unsustainable militarization of American policy in the world.
Yet Obama is probably right -- ultimately WE will have to remake society, and not wait on the Oval Office. I have never forgotten the graffiti that was scrawled by Spain's Indignados on a building in Madrid when I visited there in 2011, noting in Spanish that "it's not the party, it's the system." The message is the same in English. Obama also said famously in 2008 that "we are the ones we've been waiting for."
But we're still waiting. Not for a president, but for ourselves.