Shelby Steele reflects on the irony inherent in Barack Obama’s need to pursue his personal star by ramming socialism down a center right nation’s throat.
Of the two great societal goalsâ€”freedom and “the good”â€”freedom requires a conservatism, a discipline of principles over the good, limited government, and so on. No way to grandiosity here. But today’s liberalism is focused on “the good” more than on freedom. And ideas of “the good” are often a license to transgress democratic principles in order to reach social justice or to achieve more equality or to lessen suffering. The great political advantage of modern liberalism is its offer of license on the one hand and moral innocenceâ€”if not superiorityâ€”on the other. Liberalism lets you force people to buy health insurance and feel morally superior as you do it. Power and innocence at the same time.
This is an old formula for power, last used effectively on the presidential level by Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson’s Great Society was grasping for moral authority after the civil rights movement. I doubt any white president could use it effectively today, and even ObamaCare passed by only a three vote margin in the House and with no Republican support at all. Worse, in the end, it passed not to bring the nation better health care but to pull a flailing Democratic presidency back from the brink.
There has always been a narcissistic charge around Mr. Obama, the sense that in embracing him one was embracing something special in oneselfâ€”and possibly even a larger idea of human perfectibility. Every politician wants this capacity to attract identification. But it is also a trap. What happens when people are embarrassed for having seen themselves in you?
The old fashioned, big government liberalism that Mr. Obama uses to make himself history-making also alienates him in the center-right America of today. It makes him the most divisive president in memoryâ€”a president who elicits narcissistic identification on the one hand and an enraged tea party movement on the other. His health-care victory has renewed his narcissistic charge for the moment, but if he continues to be a 1965 liberal it will become more and more impossible for Americans to see themselves in him.
Mr. Obama’s success has always been ephemeral because it was based on an illusion: that if we Americans could transcend race enough to elect a black president, we could transcend all manner of human banalities and be on our way to human perfectibility. A black president would put us in a higher human territory. And yet the poor man we elected to play out this fantasy is now torturing us with his need to reflect our grandiosity back to us.