These are some things the president of the United States cannot say but that I can say about him. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation to be grateful to the white people who voted him into office. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation not to use the full powers of his office in such a way as to alienate any of the white people who so graciously voted him into office. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation not to use the full advantages of his office in his effort to get those white people to reelect him as their president for another four years. Because those white people voted him into office, his primary job as president is to make sure his entire presidency is a demonstration of how far we've come as a nation on race, and that means he is not allowed to do anything or say anything that the white people who elected him can perceive to be divisive, because his primary function is to make them feel good about themselves. In theory, at least, all presidents are servants of the people who elected them. In the case of Barack Obama, it has seemed from the start that the idea as applied to him was more than mere metaphor. He is the first president in my lifetime whom the country felt obligated to remind that he know his place.
The rules of the office changed on him just about the second that his hand came off the Bible in January 2009. Every benefit of every doubt that ever was given to every president, good or bad, was not given to him. Now, as he campaigns for reelection, Durham, New Hampshire, kicks up a ruckus because of the amount of money it will cost if he campaigns there. His signature accomplishment, a fundamental restructuring of the nation's health-care system, survived in the Supreme Court, and he was cautioned by voices on both sides of the aisle not to "spike the football," as though what ordinarily would be run-of-the-mill campaign tub-thumping of his primary legislative achievements would be, in his case, unseemly boasting. Imagine someone advising, say, Lyndon Johnson not to campaign on what he'd accomplished as president. You'd need dental records to identify the guy.
It's not the naked racism that's so disturbing — the witch-doctor signs and the postcards featuring watermelons on the White House lawn — or even the carefully coded language of opposition by which some woman from Alabama goes on TV and, weeping, says, "I want my America back," and everybody knows what she means. None of that could surprise anyone who lived through the two campaigns Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s, when it was all out in the open to the point where the artist David Hammons produced a portrait of Jackson as a blond, blue-eyed Nordic and titled it How Ya Like Me Now? (The answer was not very much. The original artwork was destroyed by vandals.) What's made Obama's presidency so difficult, and what has been used against him to considerable effect by those people who are much too civilized to depict him with a bone through his nose, is the tyranny of other people's sanctimony.
Part of it is his fault. He deliberately set himself up as a conciliatory figure. The speech that launched him as a national figure, his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, presented him as a figure of unity to a country that was coming unglued and would continue to come unglued throughout that election and the four years following it. (The prose in that speech couldn't have been lovelier. The politics of it couldn't have been more naive.) He rang changes on that speech throughout the campaign that made him president in 2008. He offered himself as proof of the nation's greatness and as proof of the nation's atonement for its original sin. And the nation took him up on it. The people who liked him took him up on it and the people who didn't took him up on it. The problem is that once elected, he had to be president, which meant he had to be a politician, which meant he had to offend or anger somebody somewhere, and that is not what we expect our walking absolution to do. Consequently, now that he is running for reelection, he has to run against not only Willard Romney and the Republicans and the naked obvious racism that still exists but also against the sanctimony of the people who thought he was doing them a favor by offering himself up as proof of the country's essential goodness. We must be doing something right. We let a black man be president.
I do not envy him trying to walk this narrow path. In many ways, this president reminds me of the truck drivers in The Wages of Fear, trying to get the nitroglycerine over the mountains without blowing themselves all to hell and gone. In so many ways, he is still outside of things. In so many ways, he is still the flyer the country took in 2008. In so many ways, the path he has to walk to reelection is similar to the path he has had to walk through his life. It was hard not to notice the subtext present in all those earnest warnings about wounding the tender feelings of our financial titans. The president was stepping out of his place. The president was being uppity again.
This is also the case with what is perhaps the most noxious idea out there: that Barack Obama "failed" in his promise to "bring the country together." He's now campaigning in such a way that you might believe he actually wants to be president all over again. He is engaging in politics. Mother of mercy, I swear David Brooks is just going to break down and go all to pieces on PBS some evening over the president's betrayal of his role as the country's anodyne black man and, of course, his upcoming role as black martyr to incivility and discord. It is his duty, dammit, to be all the things that people like Brooks wanted him to be so that he could lose, nobly, and then the country could go back to its rightful owners.
It has been hard not to notice that he is the first president in my lifetime who is treated as though he has been given permission by the country to lead it, a permission that can be rescinded at any time, for whatever reason, fair or foul. Ordinarily, I would not find this to be a bad thing at all. Deference to the president — or, as the political scientists and pundits prefer to call it, "respect for the office" — has gotten the country into some terrible trouble over the past fifty-odd years. It is the presiding dynamic by which the war powers have been leached into the executive branch from their true constitutional home in the national legislature. Watergate dragged on for a year longer than it should have because people lined up not necessarily to defend Richard Nixon, although that was bad enough, but to defend the presidency. Iran-Contra was barely punished at all. The previous administration used the atrocities of September 11, 2001, to cement in place what already was there and, even by the end of things, when George W. Bush had committed all the misfeasance and malfeasance and nonfeasance for which his eight years are now rightly reviled, "respect for the office" remained undiminished.
As is the case with so many things, Bill Clinton was the Great Exception. He was treated as a rube and an interloper from the day he arrived in Washington. He was pursued through a Kabuki impeachment process that was inevitable from the day the Republicans found they had the votes to do it. But somehow there was still enough vestigial institutional awe in the office to fend off even that misbegotten adventure. The country simply wasn't going to stand for impeaching an elected president over a series of blowjobs.
But it has been different for this president. Bill Clinton was not a symbol. People did not invest in him their idea of what America should be or, worse, their pride in what they thought America had become. There was no great moral self-congratulation in having elected a president from Arkansas. It was not epochal that the country had elected a white man, even if he played the saxophone and chased around. (Hell, we'd had Kennedy and LBJ back-to-back thirty years earlier, except for the saxophone part.) But the election of Barack Hussein Obama — and he still jokes on the stump about how nobody voted for anyone with that name because they thought he was a sure thing — was supposed to prove something to the country about itself. Liberals thought it was the culmination of the noble work they'd begun six decades or so earlier. Conservatives thought it was a demonstration of how that work had been completed years before, because their vision of a color-blind America had triumphed. He was a symbol, the fulfillment of everyone's political dreams.
You simply cannot govern that way. Governing is about making choices and fighting on behalf of the choices you make. Obama's own campaign rhetoric always was going to make that difficult, and the interpretation of what his election meant made it almost impossible. He could not respond even to the open racism for fear of validating the noxious stereotypes behind it. Worse, he couldn't be as aggressive as he should have been in battling for his own people — Hello, Van Jones. What's up, Shirley Sherrod? — and his own ideas, because that ran counter to what the country believed his election proved about itself. He made some mildly critical remarks about the profiteers who looted the national economy, and people dove for the fainting couches.
In May, Florida senator Marco Rubio called the president the most "divisive figure in modern American history," which, even if "modern American history" for Rubio is whatever popped up on his BlackBerry in the last fifteen minutes, is plainly preposterous. Rubio was reacting to the president's decision to use an executive order to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows. This was a good and decent thing to do, but it was also damned fine politics and Rubio knew it. And, according to the people who dearly would love to throw him out of office, Barack Obama was elected to be "above politics." He wasn't elected to be president, after all. He was elected as an avatar of American tolerance. His attempts to get himself reelected imply a certain, well, ingratitude.
The event of him is still remarkable. The idea that America elected a black man to be its president forty years after it declined to allow Martin Luther King Jr. to stand on a balcony without getting shot still maintains its power to awe and inspire. Of course, he can't make full use of that, either, because as we know by virtue of his very election, race is no longer an issue in this country. But the rest of us can make of it what we will. Even in this, his second cautious, no-drama campaign, there remains a sense that you could get in on the making of history again. It's time for Barack Obama to be as bold as he wants the rest of the country to be. If the path is narrow, you might as well run as walk.