Will the real Barack Obama please stand up?

posted at 12:31 pm on July 21, 2012 by Howard Portnoy

President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech now stands poised to become a defining issue of the 2012 campaign. At the very least, it has moved the conversation away from accusations regarding Mitt Romney’s years at Bain Capital and trained the spotlight on the president, whose supporters now ruefully acknowledge that the week-old issue is not going away on its own. This leaves them in the unenviable position of playing defense, mostly by parsing the president’s words: never a good place for a candidate or his backers to be.

One article of this ilk goes partly on the offensive (in both senses of the word) by attempting to impugn the integrity of Obama’s opponents. Its author is Paul Waldman, who is also the author of the holier-than-thou-titled Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

His latest piece, which appears in The American Prospect, is noteworthy not because of his efforts to explain away what Obama actually meant to say, which are feeble and miss the forest for the trees, but because of his snooty and gratuitously mean-spirited introduction:

By now, we can all agree that a large portion of the Republican party [and by extension, one presumes, conservatives as a whole] has created in their [sic] minds an imaginary Barack Obama, one who is either a literal or philosophical foreigner (Romney has begun dropping the word ‘foreign’ in as often as he can when discussing Obama), who hates America (here’s Rush Limbaugh on Monday: ‘I think it can now be said, without equivocation—without equivocation—that this man hates this country’), and one who hates success, hates rich people, and hates capitalism itself. [Emphasis added]

The notion of an imaginary Barack Obama is an intriguing one, largely because Obama, whether by accident or design, has been so elusive a public figure. There are still whole chapters of his past, including his childhood and his years at Columbia University, that remain shrouded in mystery. Factor in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, substantial portions of which have been shown to be fictitious, and the crisis of identity deepens.

It becomes apparent that an imaginary Barack Obama is all there is, or put differently that Obama is whatever you imagine him to be. There are some who imagine Obama to be  one of the greatest presidents of all time. (Paul Waldman is not likely one of them: He is far too cerebral for that.) Others share the opinion of historian Michael Beschloss, who told radio talk show host Don Imus in November of 2008 that Obama is the smartest man with the highest IQ ever to be elected to the presidency. (Obama has since committed numerous lapses in logic, fact, grammar, and judgment, which betray this assessment).

Some, including Waldman, see the president as the man who stepped in “right at the moment when the economy was reeling from the worst downturn since the Great Depression” and rescued the auto industry, a claim that Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto calls “fraudulent,” adding:

What he did was use political muscle to intervene in a bankruptcy process in order to ensure a settlement on terms favorable to his supporters, the United Auto Workers union, at the expense of taxpayers (or ‘freeloaders,’ in the president’s parlance) and bondholders. It would be more accurately characterized as an act of larceny than salvation.

And then of course there are people, including this writer, who regard the Obama presidency as a failed experiment in which a man with no leadership experience or executive credentials was handed the most powerful job in this nation mainly on the strength of what turned out to be his largely imagined oratory skills, plus the color of his skin. The Paul Waldmans of the world will accuse those subscribing to this view of racism, but they should back off. Absent any concrete evidence that establishes  who Barack Obama is or what he stands for, everyone is entitled to his own imagined version of the man.

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