Not to add anything to the “theater criticism” (Paul Krugman) of Wednesday’s presidential debate, but while watching the debate a thought passed through my mind about Barack Obama as he labors for his second term. I dismissed the thought immediately, but I wasn’t the only one who wondered about Obama’s curiously subdued performance. Melinda Henneberger writes in the Washington Post, “Seeing our president hanging out at podiums in Charlotte and now Denver, his famous competitiveness nowhere to be seen, has left me with a question I wish I didn’t have: Does Barack Obama really want to be president?”
(I found the Henneberger piece thanks to a tweet by Delia Lloyd. Follow her at @realdelia.)
Earlier this week I read another article that perfectly stated something I’ve thought for a long time but was never able to put into words adequately myself. In his terrific review of Charles R. Kesler’s I Am the Change, Mark Lilla says he’s never been able to reconcile the Barack Obama of the right wing/conservative/Tea Party/Republican rant-o-sphere with the man Lilla voted for in 2008.
Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? Seen from our perspective, the country elected a moderate and cautious straight shooter committed to getting things right and giving the United States its self-respect back after the Bush-Cheney years. Unlike the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine, we never bought into the campaign’s hollow “hope and change” rhetoric, so aren’t crushed that, well, life got in the way. At most we hoped for a sensible health care program to end the scandal of America’s uninsured, and were relieved that Obama proposed no other grand schemes of Nixonian scale. We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.
Lilla proposes that conservatives have plugged Obama into an apocalyptic narrative founded upon a gross misreading of Hegel. “The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago,” Lilla says, “is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation.” Lilla runs through the slide show of conservative horror images, pointing out some surprising figures in the show. His piece is one of the best reviews I’ve read in the New York Times book review in a long time. I highly recommend reading the entire thing.
I suppose the left isn’t free of its own slide shows of historical wrongs, although they don’t get as worked up about them. Liberal slide shows are designed to provoke energetic disdain rather than blind fury. Here’s a video by Killer Mike entitled “Reagan.” It’s not a fan letter by any means, but it’s not as polemical as one might first imagine.