Every American president at least since Harry Truman, and arguably for much longer, has been faced with a unique political dilemma created by two conditions. The first is the reality of capitalist domination of politics: the President is essentially a spokesperson for the empire, not its ruler, not even the primary “decider,” as George W. Bush called himself. The second is his symbolic role as king-figure. As head of state, he embodies the mythic figure of the king for his people. These two conditions require that he play two opposite aspects of the myth of innocence against each other.
His role in the drama forces him to do two things. He absolutely must continue at all times to amplify the paranoid fear of The Other so as to justify armed intervention abroad and repression at home. In other words, he must manipulate the traditional white American sense of being the innocent victim, or at least the potential victim, of some dark (and dark-skinned), irrational, violent, predatory outsider.
At the same time, he must play the exact opposite of the victim, the Hero. As Bush endlessly repeated after 9/11/2001, it is absolutely certain that America will prevail against the external Other (formerly Communism, now terrorism), because the nation, which he embodies, is charged with the divine mission of spreading freedom and opportunity. He must reassure Americans of his — and our — ability to meet the threat and defeat it.
Sadly (for those who expected something more), Barack Obama has slid seamlessly into this role. Perhaps he has had no choice; perhaps he is a true believer. But his statements about the war in Afghanistan are essentially no different from Lyndon Johnson’s on Vietnam or Bush’s on Iraq: We are in terrible danger, but we will prevail, because we are Americans, and God himself has ordained that we should be the saviors of the world.
But in America only a white man can play this role without being burned. Running for President, Obama was attacked both for being “too Black” and for being “not Black enough.” The reality of racial hatred in America forced him to choose the latter, and to emphasize a “post-racial” philosophy. But his choice had consequences.
The irony is that he has been unable to defend himself from the reactionary, Tea Party attacks regarding his place of birth, his middle name, and, of course, his skin color. His dilemma is truly unique. Even as he has been forced to continue demonizing others (dark-skinned people abroad and African-Americans and Latinos at home), he has become the subject of demonization himself. He has become the President as Other,who shamelessly accepts the abuse even as he faithfully serves his corporate masters.
In another time and place, he would have been known as one of the “house slaves.” These were the slaves who served the master inside his house, the cooks, nannies and butlers, who lived in slightly better conditions than their brethren toiling in the fields. But they were still slaves.
Obama, like every President before him for several generations, worked desperately for years to become an occupant of the White House, only to become a slave to it.