One of the truly annoying memes among my fellow lefties has been the recurring demand that Barack Obama get angry.
“Why won’t he fight the right?” goes the mantra, as if Obama pushing through a health care plan and massive, successful stimulus in the face of absolute and complete Republican opposition does not equal fighting. “When will Barack get angry, and start demanding that the GOP capitulate to our demand for an end to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the passage of the DREAM act, an unlimited extension of unemployment benefits, tax increases on the rich, single-payer health care, net neutrality, a pony in every pot, and the freeing of Mumia?”
If Obama will just “get angry,” the narrative goes, all that Republican obstinateness will fall away like the roof of the Metrodome. And Democrats will get everything we’ve ever wanted, immediately, the end.
There are two things badly wrong with this narrative. The first is that Barack’s anger and will are all that’s needed to shake loose a Republican blockade on political action that will only intensify now that it’s been ratified by a majority of Americans. Barack yelling at Susan Collins won’t make her vote for DADT repeal. Indeed, the only thing that appears to have her close to voting for DADT is the potential passage of the tax deal that is the biggest sell-out in the history of history; if DADT does get repealed, it will be only because Obama dared to compromise.
But the second major reason that Obama won’t get angry is that he can’t.
I’m not saying that Barack Obama is Spock; clearly, the man is capable of anger just like he’s capable of any other emotion. But he can’t show that anger.
In the New York Times, Ishmael Reed lays out exactly why:
Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right.
One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama. If President Obama behaved that way, he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people. His grade would go from a B- to a D.
What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years. Very few of them would have been given a grade above D from most of my teachers.
Barack Obama is black. And while the right wing tried to claim his election ushered in a post-racial America, anyone with a passing familiarity with this country knew better. America is much less racist than it was in 1950, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a racist nation. And one of the great racist tropes is that of the Angry Black Man.
Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 in no small part because he has learned how not to fall into the trap of appearing too threatening. The level of racism aimed at Obama has been shocking to anyone paying attention; how much worse would it be had Obama given in to the temptation to yell at his opponents? You think the right enjoyed picking out the worst of Jeremiah Wright? Just imagine if Obama had hollered, as John Boehner did on the floor of the House, “Hell no”?
Obama has to keep his cool. Even when angry and frustrated, he speaks calmly and rationally. He doesn’t have a choice – if he steps over the line, he’ll be destroyed.
That doesn’t mean Obama shouldn’t “fight” – he has to stand up to the GOP from time to time. And yes, I think we can all point out times when Obama has made poor opening gambits, or chosen to emphasize something that shouldn’t have been. And we can discuss that strategy rationally, discuss how Obama can really go after the right – and how we can help him.
But we can’t demand that the strategy be self-destructive. Barack Obama isn’t going to get angry, because the result of that is a cure worse than the disease. You and I, however, are free to get as angry as we want. And maybe, rather than demand Barack start yelling, we should start yelling instead.