Bitter Clingers 2.0

Clingers 1.0: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Clingers 2.0: Certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutel.  … If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I'm Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I'd say there is that that's probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them…. If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I've been wiping out the economy in your area .… I think if you are talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am.”

Barack Obama in the final stretch of his 2008 primary campaign explained away—off the record in an unguarded moment—his unpopularity in Pennsylvania. The problem then was a biased “them”—not so much the hard-left policies and principles of Barack Obama.

These narrow-minded clingers were supposedly not fond of Obama and similar others “who aren’t like them.” Thus, because of their parochialism, nativism, and fundamentalism, the unenlightened voters of Pennsylvania were unable to appreciate Obama’s message of “hope and change” and vero possumus—much less his landmark promises to return the Presidency to constitutional restraint, radically improve American health care, end the role of big money in politics, solve the “bad” Iraq war and win the “good” Afghan war, cool the planet and recede the seas, end government scandal, bridge the racial divide, balance the budget, reset relations with Russia, and win back the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

For some reason, the under-educated voter seven years ago was skeptical that Obama would do any of that. Of course, Obama smeared the Clingers off the record, given that what he really thought of the white working class of Pennsylvania did not quite synch with his purported racial and class ecumenicalism.

Seven years later an unpopular (43% approval rate in the RealClearPolitics.com aggregate poll), lame-duck President Obama has come full circle in his angst and pouting. Now with no more elections looming, nothing apparently is off the record. He recently gave an interview with NPR, in which he offered a sort of Clingers 2.0 exegesis for his current poor approval ratings and absence of a legacy.

Once again the fault is with an ignorant “them” and their biases (e.g., “I may represent change that worries them”), not Obama’s own unimpressive record of governance.

A liberated Obama is more overt in his sense of victimization. Now he can be more explicit than his Clingers 1.0 indictment and quite openly allege that his family’s background and race best explain his plight ("I think if you are talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am”). But as before, the Obama victimization argument fails in a variety of ways, and, sadly, tells us more about the president himself than those who he alleges were captives of their prejudices.

If “who I am” explains Obama’s nosedive in the polls, why, for example, did voters or “pockets” of “the Republican Party” for nearly a year, at least in opinion samplings, seem to like newcomer African-American Ben Carson more so than better connected white male candidates, both party functionaries such as Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and erstwhile Tea-Party favorites such as Rand Paul, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker? Was Ben Carson less authentically representative of the American black experience than Barack Obama?

How did it happen that Barack Obama in 2008 won a larger share of the white vote than had white liberal presidential candidates of the past such as Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and Walter Mondale? And if the white votes of nearly 55% against Obama in 2008 and 59% in 2012 are, according to the president, windows into racial bias, what would he call the 93% of the black vote that went to an African-American Obama?

Was that unprecedented margin likewise driven, in Obama’s worldview, by “who I am” rather than his prior record of political achievement? If Hillary Clinton continues to support the Obama agenda, will she too garner 93% of the African-American vote? But if not, will it be due to “who I am” considerations?

Is there any evidence to suggest that either the public or the press has been harder on Obama than, say, on former President George W. Bush?

Public figures like Linda Ronstadt, Harold Pinter, Scott Ritter, Ted Rall, and George Soros all once tagged Bush with the Hitler slur. So did Sen. John Glenn, activist Julian Bond, and a vein-bulging Al Gore.

Has a conservative version of Jonathan Chait published an essay, with a refrain “I hate Barack Obama”? Did a younger “there are no red states or blue states” Obama object when Alfred A. Knopf published a novel, Checkpoint, about two characters dreaming how to kill President Bush?

Has Hollywood made a fallacious movie about Obama’s past, perhaps appropriately dubbed Truth II—in the manner it canonized, with the aid of forged documents, those who lied about Bush’s military service?

Did a pre-presidential Obama cry foul when a guest columnist in the Guardian, Charlie Brooker, wrote to his British readers on the eve of the Bush 2004 election bid: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. —where are you now that we need you?” Would a Western newspaper print anything like that about Obama?

If Obama believes bias has driven mindless opposition to his policies, what drove Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 to vote to refuse raising the debt ceiling and thus to shut down the Bush-led government at a time when the national debt was half of what it is now? Or why did Obama declare the Bush-Petraeus surge a failure before it had even been started? Why was Senator Obama’s voting record the most partisan in the entire U.S. Senate? Were there biases or unenlightened prejudices that drove him to such nihilistic partisanship?

Are we to believe that Obama’s dismal popularity and mostly failed legislative record were due to the innate prejudice and the fears of a vanishing white male electorate? If so, few presidents have entered office with such wide party majorities in both houses of Congress and impressive public approval ratings. In contrast, does Obama remember the poll ratings of the last white male president when he too left office? Was George W. Bush’s lower 37% approval rating as he neared the end of his tenure due to “who he was”? Did it thus likewise reflect an even greater prejudice against a white Christian southerner?

Does Obama believe that if he had balanced the budget, continued the prior war on terror against radical Islam, cut out the incoherent class-warfare rhetoric, kept peacekeepers in Iraq, enforced federal laws, avoided racially polarizing rhetoric, and sought to reform the tax code and entitlements rather than drive through Obamacare with prevarication and without a single Republican vote, his popularity ratings would now be at 43%?

If a white liberal president had compiled the same far-left record as Obama, would those in West Virginia have supported him solely because of his race? In contrast, had Obama pursued a policy of helping the poor of Appalachia by promoting clean coal technologies rather than promising to bankrupt the coal industry and to send electricity rates soaring, would he have been so disliked?

No other president has so consciously tried to divide the country by race since Woodrow Wilson. In order to achieve an electoral 93% black majority, and historic turnouts among minority voters, Obama unleashed a campaign of thinly disguised racial divisiveness. Mutatis mutandis, imagine had John McCain or Mitt Romney advised supporters to “get in their face” or to bring a gun to a knife fight, told white supporters to “punish our enemies,” waded into a powder-keg criminal trial to announce the white defendant looked the like the son he might have had, or had a trusted confidant—in Attorney General Eric Holder fashion—refer to whites as “my people” or slur the country as a “nation of cowards” for not talking about racial tensions.

What Obama regrets is not so much the passions of racial intolerance, but rather why his previous success in inciting and manipulating such tensions has finally became tiresome to the public and contributed to his own present unpopularity.

I agree with Obama that it is both regrettable and foolhardy for conspiracists to dub Obama a Muslim and an Islamic partisan—in the fashion that the Left once dubbed Bush a captive either to his evangelical Christian fundamentalist friends or his closet neo-conservative Jewish advisors in thrall to the Zionists. But who has helped contribute to that stereotype?

An earlier Obama apparently teased out autobiographical ambiguity when he thought multicultural fides was useful in careerist terms. One of his agent’s promotional biographical booklets claimed that he was born in Kenya (“born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii”), an apparent concoction felt valuable in hyping a young multicultural author claiming to bridge “journeys in black and white.” Most authors read their bios and have veto power over fabrications.

Obama’s autobiography romanticized Islamic prayer in starry-eyed high-school fashion (“one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset”). Rev. Wright, the disreputable former Obama pastor and personal confidant, who inspired Obama to entitle his second tome The Audacity of Hope, has teased journalist Ed Klein with sly suggestions of Obama’s religious ambiguity, at one point hinting that Obama once thought himself a Muslim (KLEIN: “Do you think he ever thought of himself as Muslim?” / WRIGHT: “Yes”).

Who fed conspiracists their paranoid fodder, when Obama misspoke to George Stephanopoulos during the 2008 campaign: “What I was suggesting—you’re absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith. And you’re absolutely right that that has not come”? Had the interviewer slipped, and said, “your Muslim faith” before being corrected by Obama, would that have been a conspiracist trope?

The point is not that Obama is foreign born or a Muslim, but instead that before the president started to damn the supposedly ignorant for their allegedly hate-driven conspiracy theories, he should have at least better policed his own once trusted confidant and pastor, his literary agents, his book editors, and his interview preppers.

Obama won two elections and transient popularity by community-organizing the country. His class warfare rhetoric, before and after elections, was effective in galvanizing both minority solidarity and white guilt. But those were politicized cheap shots that are not the path to unite a democracy behind a common agenda.

As we see in both Obama’s Clingers 1.0 and 2.0 riffs, Obama has learned, in classic Nixonian fashion, that winning elections in Humpty-Dumpty fashion, by smashing apart the electorate, does not translate into gluing back together a nation: win by divisiveness, perish by divisiveness.

As he leaves office, Obama appears angry at the very reality he created. Let us hope in time he develops some introspection rather than continually smearing those for whom he has always appeared so transparently divisive.