Decade in Review: Obama and the Court of Public Opinion

By Michelle Railey

January 5, 2012

Image: Jim Bourg, Reuters, October 2008

In days of yore, namely 2008, back when Senator McCain (R-AZ) was behaving visibly irrationally, sticking his tongue out at then-candidate Obama in presidential debates, a pundit whose name I heartily wish I remember said of McCain “I don’t know why he gets so angry. There seems to be something about Obama personally. It’s like his whippersnapperiness just makes him mad.” And there still seems to be a certain je ne sais quoi about the President that appears to make some people mad.

The patently Red and Right will cite the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the repeal of DADT, and the end of the war in Iraq to explain their disapproval of President Obama. More frequently though, their dislike is pinned to a litany of unsupported and/or unsupportable generalities: the President has socialist policies; the President is anti-American; the President is destroying or has destroyed America and our way of life.

Yet the ACA is built mainly on past Republicans’ policy proposals and it leaves a wide berth for the states to self-determine how the goals of the law is enacted within their jurisdictions—more states’ rights than federal takeover—and in 2014, it instantly adds 50 million consumers to the free market of insurance providers. Presto change-o, that’s more money for the capitalists. And while DADT was repealed (with the approval and support of many high-ranking members at the Pentagon), the Defense of Marriage Act remains unenforced but intact and the President still won’t step any further on the subject of LGBT rights than to suggest that civil unions might be acceptable in the future. As for the war in Iraq, the troops would most likely have been leaving at the end of 2010 without any decisive action on the part of the Obama administration as a result of the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement unless President Talabani had expressly invited them to remain. And, finally, on the charge of anti-American sentiment, President Obama has obviously learned the Lesson of the Flag Pin (check his lapels). He has released his American birth certificate, even making it available for purchase in coffee mug form. He ends all his speeches with “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” Sure, one could argue that he’s just saying it because he has to but this is an argument that is based in suspicion, bias, and opinion. It can never be proven or disproven and can never stand as fact.

The Progressives, the Liberal, and the Blue didn’t share the same initial general opposition to and suspicion of the President as, say, the Tea Party. In 2008 and early 2009, there were jokes about President Obama being carried to the inauguration by a chariot of singing angels. There was a general impression that, like the JibJab video, life in America under President Obama would be all rainbows and unicorns in an exuberant, optimistic, candy-colored fantasy. But mostly there was real hope, real jubilance, and real affection. As the results came in late on that November election night and the crowds gathered in Grant Park, the moment seemed electric.

But with time, the surge in Afghanistan happened and cap and trade didn’t. The economy stayed low, housing values sank lower and so did American spirits. Wall Streeters weren’t prosecuted but undocumented immigrants were, deported since 2009 in record numbers. Guantánamo Bay remained open. Throughout it all, unmanned drones flew overhead across the globe: sometimes acting lethally but always watching. Then came the election of 2010 and to some it seemed the President’s only response was an inadequate “We took a real shellacking.”

For my part, the perception of President Obama doesn’t vary much from my impression of candidate Obama. I saw in 2008 a measured, rational, thoughtful person who would approach a problem from every conceivable angle, weighing costs and benefits in the short and long terms, consider what was politically achievable, and consult every resource available to him before he acted. In short, I saw a sober and temperate Moderate. I think in 2011, this is still what I see in the President. I think I’ve gotten the pragmatist president I expected, for the most part.

In any case, in the pundit class, in the 2012 race lead-off, in friendly conversations at my neighborhood haunts; in call-in public radio shows, on the back of pick-up trucks, and mostly definitely on the internet, there seem to be two distinct and rather vocal groups of people among those who are not true blue Obama supporters: those who “like” the President personally but disapprove of the direction the country is taking and/or Mr. Obama’s job performance anyway and those who, frankly, seem to detest him and vehemently oppose his re-election and, for that matter, his ever-election.

And I can’t explain it. More troublingly, neither can many of them. When delving in specifics of policy, they list the aforementioned ACA, not by name but as a socialist takeover of medicine, and their consequent inability to choose their own doctor, contrary to the facts of the actual ACA. They rail against Obama’s “bankrupting” of the country despite the wars, financial crisis, Bush tax cuts, and the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which pre-dated his term in office. And then, Janus-like, they will contradict their own arguments and say the President “just hasn’t done anything.” This despite the ACA, the stimulus, the Consumer Financial Protection Act; despite the assassination of Osama bin Laden, despite the drones, despite deportations. So, sure the President has done nothing, other than manage crises at home (the economy, Tucson, violent weather, an historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more problems with the economy and unemployment, and returning and sick veterans) and crises abroad (the Euro crisis, Arab Spring, the ongoing threat of international terrorism, a shake-up in North Korea, increasing danger signals from an aspirationally nuclear Iran, and relief efforts in response to floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis). I guess he did take some time off to gallivant over to Oslo to pick up some vanity award like the Nobel Peace Prize or something but I don’t share the view that this one eurotrip constitutes an entire term of dormancy.

So going into the election of 2012, the key word in the court of public opinion in the case of President Obama seems to be “despite.” I’m not saying or implying that people’s objections and grievances aren’t legitimate or real. I do contend that too frequently the arguments they give to support them are not. Too often it just seems to come down to actual but ultimately unreasoned and inchoate spite despite their best explanatory efforts. President Obama’s very whippersnapperiness just seems to make them mad.

See also: Jim Bourg, photographer for Reuters writes about this image on Reuters blog.

Leave a Reply