James writes (from Big Government):
One of the most talked about lines from the State of the Union came not from Obama but from a comment the MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews made after the President’s address: “He is post-racial by all appearances,” Matthews observed. “You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two.”
I am prepared to take this comment seriously. No doubt Matthews meant it as a compliment. A cheerleader for the President, Matthews once famously remarked that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” following another Obama speech. But the observation of a “post-racial” President spells trouble for Obama. For one, judging by Matthews’s backtracking, the comment has inadvertently exposed the subject of Obama’s race to be a continuing taboo for any meaningful discussion. Why is it taboo? Because race remains the key issue through which one can unlock and understand the power that brought Obama to office, and Obama’s defenders do not want to give that key away. Harry Reid’s recently reported comments about Obama being a “light-skinned Negro” raised hackles for similar reasons.
Also, if race has played a key role in the making of this President, the concept of a “post-racial” Obama means the President could be losing his “racial” gloss with the electorate. If the voters have indeed “Completely forgotten it…. Completely forgotten it,” as Matthews claims to have forgotten that Obama is black during the duration of the SOTU, then the President may be “transcending race: only to lose the source of his political power.
Since the attacks of 9/11, the sociological effects of a war on terror have made the electorate more fluid, harder to define, tending towards extremes, and looking for salvation. They have also been more willing to take risks on candidates. The Obama election was a consequence of this dynamic. After the perceived fatigue of the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq, the electorate desperately needed to be liked, and the election of Obama provided a way for the electorate to prove its likability.
Obama tapped into the main artery of the electorate and ran on an undefined, broad platform of hope. But what is hope? Hope implies risk. Hope can be a gamble. The instinct that brought Obama to office was the same instinct that fed the economic bubble. The electorate doubled down on candidate Obama and purchased a complex political instrument they did not really understand.
The 2008 election was the demonstrable event. The perceived importance of electing America’s first black President cannot be underestimated. Little may have been known about candidate Obama, but everyone could appreciate Obama’s race. Race was so prominent in voter calculus and media coverage, in fact, that Obama did not need to address it himself in a direct way, except when compelled by Jeremiah Wright. The issue was obvious.
There was only secondary concern for how Obama would lead once elected. The electorate wanted and needed to show that it could elect a beautiful man and put his family in the nation’s first home–a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Norman Lear, “Sesame Street” fantasy. The election of this symbolic figure alone would then address our international standing, it was assumed, appease the Muslim world, and solve our own racial psychosis at once. The problems of the world would be half-solved by the time he took office.
Of course, the problems of the world have not ended. We now get to spend four years with a president we don’t really know. And a year in, we are still not liked.
I think Obama has changed much less than the public perception of him has changed. We got what we elected, an unproven freshman politician as President, a terrible leader who manages to project weakness even when he does something forceful (as in rightly sending more troops into Afghanistan).
Hope has evolved to distrust. The electorate is moving on. If the election of Obama, rather than the governance of Obama, was the thing, now that this act has been completed, the variable of Obama’s race has become far less important for the Chris Matthews of the world.
It is undeniably significant to elect America’s first black President, given the sordid history of race relations in this country. It is, however, far less significant to *reelect* America’s first black President. With the aura of race quickly dissipating, Obama is losing a source of his power. He had the world on a string before the election. But in office, his Midas touch has left him, which is why his emergency appearances could not rescue Democratic candidates in New Jersey, Virginia, or Massachusetts and will provide little uplift to Democrats in the mid-term elections.
Obama was a good campaigner because he understood how to manipulate race to get elected. This had been David Axelrod’s specialty, after all. But Obama has not evolved into a popular President, in part because he has not figured out how to keep his race significant. He was supposed to be an agent of change, but I doubt whether he can change *himself* in time to keep up with the electorate’s changing expectations. A year ago the voters thought they were getting a black version of Abraham Lincoln. Now they need a Ronald Reagan, and any color will do.