Better Than the Bitter

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Barack Obama, it turns out, has a knack for undermining his own political strengths.

He was supposed to be the post-racial candidate. But he has associated himself for decades with a tradition of black liberation that views all of American life through the prism of pigment. His response to criticism on this count has been, in essence: The bitterness of my church is historically understandable but misdirected. You know me. I'm better than that.

Obama was also supposed to be the Democrat who finally "gets" religion, after a series of Democratic presidential candidates who seemed to suffer from a theological disability. But now, in the suddenly indispensable Huffington Post, we learn of Obama's unguarded reflection on Middle American economic anxiety: "It's not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

During Sunday night's CNN "Compassion Forum," Obama tried to smooth this statement over with the observation that "Scripture talks about clinging to what's good." So, evidently, in hard economic times, people find shelter, comfort and refuge in religion -- and anti-immigrant sentiments and antipathy to people who aren't like them. All those tried and true sources of American strength and steadiness during a crisis.

This is the downside of eloquence and intellect -- a belief that anything can be explained and thus explained away -- a temptation to substitute cleverness for remorse.

It is generally a bad political idea for a candidate to psychoanalyze swing voters, who tend to view their beliefs and motivations as more "real" than the deceptions and illusions the political class believes them to be. Few would enjoy being a pinned and wriggling specimen in Professor Obama's seminar for San Francisco Democratic donors.

But the setback is more than political. One of Obama's genuine contributions had been a renewed, liberal appreciation of the role of religious motivations in politics. His 2006 speech at a Call to Renewal conference in Washington recognized that the religious impulse has uncontainable political consequences. "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

In 2006, Obama argued that religious belief was authentic, well-intentioned and essential to the common good. In San Francisco, however, he seemed to slip into a crude academic Marxism, claiming that religion is an epiphenomenon, the outgrowth of deeper social trends; that the deepest realities of politics are economic instead of moral; that God and guns, bitterness and bigotry all somehow distract Middle America from real issues of justice.

During Sunday night's forum, Obama dismissed this interpretation as inconsistent with his life story. "It is very important to understand . . . that I am a devout Christian, that I started my work working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the south side of Chicago." In other words: You know me. I'm better than that.

Looking back over recent months, there is a common thread in Obama's response to both the Wright revelations and his "bitter" gaffe. In his Philadelphia speech on race, Obama talked of "the anger and the bitterness" of Wright's oppressed generation. He referred to "a similar anger" existing within "the white community" that politicians have routinely exploited on issues such as crime and welfare. America, in this view, is beset by anxiety and fear and resentment and racial stalemate, which can be overcome by Obama's broad understanding and audacious hope.

A part of me wants to believe. Racial discrimination is the poorly healed scar of American history, and Obama's election would be a happy arrival on a national journey that began with African Americans considered only three-fifths of a person.

But Obama's political approach is wearing poorly. Obamaism seems to consist of the belief that the candidate transcends the understandable but confused anger of black and white Americans. And so Obamaism requires an unfavorable comparison of the American people to Obama himself.

This message is inherently prideful: I understand your bitterness and confusion, but I don't reflect it. You know me. I'm better than that.

The problem is: We really don't know Obama very well.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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