At my barbershop, where style is unabashedly substance, talk recently turned to President Obama and whether anyone had noticed anything different about him lately. Not the graying hair, but something more akin to a man-up makeover?
“He’s putting his foot down,” said Shelton Williams, head stylist and owner of Shelton’s Hair Gallery in Silver Spring. “Mess with him now and he says: ‘You want some of this? You want a piece of me? Come and get it.’ ”
Obama’s throw-down-the-gauntlet defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice last week had not gone unnoticed. Two Republican lawmakers — Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina — had all but dared the president to nominate Rice as the next secretary of state.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” the president said at a news conference Wednesday, his contempt barely contained.
Some conservative commentators were appalled. Kirsten Powers, writing for FoxNews.com, called Obama’s defense “absurd and chauvinistic.” Charles Krauthammer likened Obama to “Lancelot defending the mistress in distress.”
Not so at Shelton’s, where a black man defending a black woman from attacks by two white men has a symbolic value all its own.
“What I see and hear in this chair, you don’t usually hear expressed publicly — and that is the incredible depth of feeling that people have for Obama and enormous pride they take in his success,” said Williams, who has been in business since 1972. “Obama represents a landmark in the ongoing struggles of black people — our parents, grandparents, all of our ancestors’ struggles going back to slavery. When I talk to people in the salon, they aren’t saying anything specific about the direction Obama ought to be taking the country, just that we ought to lift him up, keep him steady, because he shares our values.”
Those values transcend race: hard work, charity, fiscal responsibility, sacrifice and perseverance. As a Pew Research Center report noted in 2010: “Seven in 10 whites (70 percent) and six in 10 blacks (60 percent) say that the values held by blacks and whites have become more similar in the past 10 years.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason why so few blacks have demanded more from Obama. There’s a belief that the black president could only do so much, what with all the Republican opposition in Congress, so we just have to do more to help ourselves.
“We certainly don’t hear a lot about poverty anymore,” said Adrienne Scott, who was getting her hair done at Shelton’s. “You’d think those unemployment numbers would be a thorn in Obama’s side.”
More aggravating for us, apparently, were attempts by right-wingers to tarnish Obama the symbol. The president’s first term was marred by a wearisome spectacle: unprecedented disrespect, almost from Day One, including Republican nastiness during his first address to the joint session of Congress and continuing through the presidential debates.
At the first faceoff, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had likened Obama to a Romney boy caught in a lie. On the other hand, Obama had spent much of the debate with his head down, taking notes, which made him come off more like a waiter at a restaurant than a commander in chief.
Fortunately, the poor performance had the effect of a Mennen Skin Bracer wake-up slap. Since then, Obama has projected a forcefulness never before seen in public.
Would he continue to play hardball, cajole less, as Richard Griffin, Bill Clinton’s congressional liaison, had advised? Griffin told the New York Times that Obama needed a willingness to make his political opponents “pay a cost” for defying him.
Sandy Lawson, sitting under a hair dryer, tilted the hood and said: “He does seem more confident.”
Another customer, Curtis J. Lewis, applauded Obama’s defense of Rice, saying, “Given all the nastiness that the president has had to deal with, he needed to take a firm approach.”
Lewis’s 3-year-old son, Micah, was getting a haircut and seemed to be listening in on the barbershop chatter. If so, he’d heard that Obama’s first term showed how boys like him could grow up to become president of the United States. Now, on the eve of his second term, Obama was poised to show how a president might grow up to become a man in full.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.