No, Obama Is Not Black JesusRoundup
tags: Obama, Obama legacy
Barack Obama had already made history by winning the presidency in November 2008. Nevertheless, several months into his first term, as Morton Keller notes in Obama’s Time, the president invited several of the nation’s most prominent Presidential historians—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Douglas Brinkley, H. W. Brands, David Kennedy, Kenneth Mack, and Garry Wills—to the White House for dinner to talk about how he might continue to do make history. Specifically, he convened these liberal-leaning but by no means radical presidential scholars to straight-out ask them how he might become a truly “great president,” indeed, a “transformational president” like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
Given the state of the nation—not to mention the egomania that presumably drives every man and woman who seeks the presidency—it seems only natural that the new Democratic president who had insisted “Yes We Can” should have asked about his greatest predecessors. And arguably, given his academic smarts, doing so testifies as much if not more to Obama’s own intellectual curiosity and desire to learn from the past as it does to the issue of the nature of his ambitions and sense of self.
But Keller, a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cites Obama’s dinner-party question to make a different case. He does so to bolster his argument that Obama came into office with a “messianic desire to strike out in new directions” (my italics). As Keller writes at the very outset of his first chapter: “By any measure Obama was an unusual public figure. The media and the educated classes in particular had a strong belief in his unique talents and the prospect of an epochal presidency. (So, apparently did Obama. Early on he asked a group of historians what it took to be a transformative president.) His staff had even higher expectations. With minimal irony, they referred to him as Black Jesus.”
Admittedly, Keller places the dinner-party reference in parentheses. But he clearly intends it as more than a mere aside—and he is right to do so. However, seemingly determined to portray Obama as having some kind of Messiah complex, Keller misses the most critical thing about that evening’s exchange. That is, he completely ignores what his fellow historians actually told the president—and, more critically, what they apparently did not tell him.
Recalling Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War, and the Great Society, in particular, the historians spoke of the difficulties and challenges that presidents had in pursuing a transformative politics when they were committed to pursuing military actions abroad and progressive policy initiatives at home. And it is all well and good that they did. But sadly, what they did not explain to the president—and I seriously wonder if it ever occurred to any of them to do so—is that “transformation” entails more than merely rallying public opinion and pushing bills through Congress. It also entails conflict and struggle....
Arguably, both the president and we the people would have been better served if he had invited progressive scholars such as Lincoln biographer Eric Foner, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, women’s historian Alice Kessler-Harris, and black historian Robin Kelley to dine with him at the White House—though I can just imagine what Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly would have said if he had.
As a consequence, while Obama secured bank and corporate bailouts, stimulus dollars, and “Obamacare” (though the last remains in jeopardy), he never mobilized the many Americans who were ready to go to work to democratically redeem, reconstruct, and reform the nation or even responded in any meaningful way to the emergent popular struggles from below that were making themselves heard across the country. Tragically, we saw no new New Deal or Great Society, and instead of a new progressive era or redeemed liberal social contract we have suffered not just a lethargic recovery, but also six years of obstruction and deference and Republican congressional and state election victories that promise still worse to come. ...
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