Obama’s presidency is winding down. His opponents aren’t.
Their calls and emails still roll in. They don’t want to debate as much as spout, releasing a geyser of frustration about Obama-this or Obama that. They go through their well-honed list of the president’s supposed failures – Obamacare, ISIS, Benghazi, immigration, the deficit, a slow economic recovery. All of it, of course, leads to Obama’s rank as “the worst president ever.”
But a new part of the usual litany is particularly puzzling: Complainers now blame Obama for a national mood in which Americans “are more divided than ever.”
There’s irony in this charge, or course. These callers, and the collection of hot-headed cable-news and talk-radio hosts who stoke their anger, thrive on creating divisions between the doers and takers, the unquestioning patriots and those who question U.S. military spending, the Christians and secular humanists, the gun owners and gun controllers. And, let’s face it, blacks and whites.
But the deepest irony lies in the person of the president himself, a man whose very being combines worlds rather than divides them. He is half-black and half-white, half exotic Hawaiian, half heartland Kansan, the child raised by a single mother who became the father in a traditional family, a product of the nation’s elite universities and a community organizer schooled on the streets of Chicago.
Given his background, Obama’s rise to the presidency should have been a cause of pride even for those who did not vote for him. As the nation’s first black president, he signaled to his country and to the world that the land of opportunity was not a myth and that American democracy was real. A mixed-race kid from a broken family really could grow up to become president.
On Election Night 2008, the result defeated cynicism. America had elected a black man as president. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal ...” was an ideal realized. And that was the response in many quarters, especially among those minority Americans who had the strongest reasons to believe that that ideal was distant and unreachable.
But that wasn’t the reaction everywhere. There’s a story about President Obama walking into a restaurant in rural western North Carolina and only a few of the patrons standing up. When one women was asked why she didn’t rise for the president, she said, “He’s not my president.”
Much momentum and opportunity was lost before Obama realized and accepted that the Republicans intended to tap deeply into the sentiment of “He’s not my president.” Obama would be ignored in his overtures and suspected for his otherness. Republicans rallied around the goal of making him a one-term wonder.
Obama won reelection, but the popular will in his favor only hardened his opponents.
Conservatives blame Obama for more than divisive politics. They say he is responsible for a widening racial divide. It’s Obama, they say, who encourages discomfiting movements such as Black Lives Matter and the protests over racial incidents that unseated the University of Missouri’s president.
Perhaps Obama takes pride in the idea that he inspires black political assertiveness, something he did not engage in himself. He has tried hard not to be the first black president, but the president of all Americans, whether all Americans accept him or not. On matters of race, he is guilty of doing too little, not too much.
The Obama presidency is entering its twilight, but the antipathy it engenders among many conservatives will burn bright until the end and even after he is gone.
For future historians, it will be a mystery and a shame that the first black president, a symbol of American opportunity, became the target of denial and resistance and even hatred on the part of so many who prefer a United States divided.
Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver. com, 919-829-4512