President Obama: Empty Signifier; Adult

In rhetorical or literary-theory terms, President Obama may be among the ultimate empty signifiers, meaning that even more than most well known politicians and leaders, he “is” what people believe him to be.  Race plays the most important role in this phenomenon; it’s not even a close call, and the more (White) people protest that race isn’t a factor, the more one is convinced it is.

Here we turn to the obligatory granted-points: No, not every criticism of Obama is race-based or unfair. Yes, he’s as much a politician as most. Yes, he is the leader of an empire.  Every U.S. president is such, by default. Yes, he’s made blunders. Etc.

What he isn’t, but what he variously must be to those needing to fill the emptiness with their own problems is . . .

Black–and nothing more



Muslim (as if that were a bad thing)


Proud, “Uppity,” Arrogant, Hateful



Incompetent (see “Black”)



He is, of course, none of these things, nor has he ever claimed to be. I perceive him to be–and this is to his political detriment–the most adult president we have had in a good long while.  President Reagan and President Bush II were mental teenagers, at best. So was Clinton, or at least one segment of his personality.

Faced with a rabidly oppositional group of Republicans obligated to feed red racist meat to voters, what did Obama do?  He attempted to reach common ground.  That’s right! He negotiated! How dare he!  Presented with two ill-advised wars, what did he do?  Try to finish them and get the hell out of there.  He was much more successful in Iraq than in Afghanistan, true. 

Faced with a genuine enemy, Osama Bin Laden, what did he do?  Have him killed, something Bush II, age 14, couldn’t manage. Faced with the concentration camp in Guantanamo, what did he do? Propose closing it.  Congress: “No.”  Faced with a bad economy and a broken GM, what did he do? Pursue Keynsian economics–probably not fiercely enough, but there you go; pursue Wall Street reforms; introduce programs to save mortgage-holders who’d been shafted; and get GM on its feet.  I recall vividly that even alleged “liberal” academics (White, of course) called that a government takeover, a “nationalization” of the car-industry.

Faced with a post, the presidency of the U.S., that the 14-year-old had wrecked, what did Obama do?  Through no action or desire of his own, he became a darling of Europe.  He didn’t apply for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he had the good sense to be embarrassed by it.  About all he did was suggest that a collaboration of “Allies” was better than a U.S.-go-it-alone path.  Six years later, of course, the formerly infatuated Europe now views him as merely a man (the horror, part deux), and those who were infuriated by the infatuation view him as some kind of fallen celebrity.  It’s as if a group of people came by his house and asked him to be the honorary leader of the town parade.  Polite, he agrees.  Embarrassed but sitting on the main float, he waves.  He goes home, relieved.  The group that had visited him now accuses him of being an attention-seeker. “Whatever!”

Faced with an executive branch that the other two branches have let become nearly royal, what has he done?  Sought Congressional approval for military action.  Suggested controls on the NSA.  He has, to be sure, insufficiently suggested controls of warrantless wire-tapping, and heads should have rolled over the spying on Allies.  Easy for me to say, however.  I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be now to try to control the self-propelled, self-sustaining Security State.

Hilariously, former Sect’Y Gates accused Obama of supporting the troops in Afghanistan but not the mission. Well, duh. Why would anyone, conscious of history, invade Afghanistan and be happy with “the mission”? “But what about the Taliban?”  Well, what about them? They’re taking over again, so apparently invasion wasn’t the antidote.  If they host terrorist camps again, bomb the shit out of the camps, but never invade.

Obama wants to respond rationally to global warming and the immigration crisis. Congress: Eff off.

Faced with an intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he has given up: that happens to be the most prudent path for the foreseeable future–which is too bad for both Palestinians and Israelis, in my opinion, but I’m no expert.  It seems to be a chess-board with no good moves available.

In truth, President Obama is an Eisenhower Republican highly influenced by the Pragmatism of William James. A middle-of-the road nerd whom ideology bores.

The deeper problem, of course, is that no president can control the military-industrial complex: See Eisenhower above.  Ike saw it coming, warned everybody, and retired.  When a former general says “Watch out for the military and its corporate cronies,” then you know you’ve been warned. It’s as if Jeff Gordon of NASCAR is telling you to stop driving so fast.

It is the prime paradox of the Executive Branch.  As President, you may be more powerful than ever, but you are not powerful enough to do much about the military, the “security” establishment, or corporate power.

I have no idea what President Obama is really like, but observing him closely, watching his measured responses, listening to his speeches, and knowing (professionally: I teach African American literature) something about race in the U.S., I suspect he is the following:

An adult.  An American adult who likes sports and informality and is most comfortable with capitalism, and who is impatient with Europe but not disdainful of it, as was Bush II, who would now like to visit Europe to give speeches for millions of dollars but can’t because Europe sees him as a war criminal.   (Obama is disdainful of Putin, as he should be, for Putin is a nutter.) 

Obama is a pragmatist (small p) when it comes to solving problems. He never pretended to be Leftist.  –An intellectual who got into politics, not a politician who pretends to have read something. Far from being imperial, he can’t, I think, wait not to be president and spend days reading, playing some hoops and some golf, and being exceedingly cautious about which White people he hangs out with, given his treatment by the Dixiecrat GOPers and their Nugentified Zombies. Take race out of the GOP, and you might as well take the mother-board out of your computer.

As a U.S. President, he’s about average but better and saner than many.  Many presidents have been dealt worse hands, but his hand was pretty awful.  Bush II was dealing, and Cheney was the pit-boss.

President Obama: average.

But, no, we cannot have him be what he is. We must have him be much worse or much better than he is.



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