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Who Is Barack Obama?

And why do people say such loopy, ugly things about him? The enduring rot in American politics.

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Photo-illustration by Gluekit  

All around were satanic representations of President Barack Obama in whiteface, as a Nazi, an African witch doctor, a Marxist, a Muslim, and Che Guevara’s best friend—but Kathy Golya had never felt so good about the new administration as she did right now. It was a day after Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress, and the South Carolina congressman had given voice to Golya’s inner heart. He hadn’t just said it on the Internet, he had said it to the president himself.

No, it was not the appropriate place, Golya said, but still she glowed with the memory. “It was the first time in my life I felt good, since he got into office. Someone had called him a liar.”

A prim, slender homemaker in her fifties from northeastern Pennsylvania, Golya had come out to a tea party in Scranton with her friend Donna Biscontini to have solidarity with everyone else with strong criticisms of the president. Not really criticisms, actually, but feelings—anger, upset, a sense of dispossession. There had been a kind of revolution in the country with Obama’s election, the women felt. They talked about the president’s “czars.” One of the czars believed that animals should have lawyers to sue their owners. “Animals have more rights than people,” Biscontini said. Another was for forced sterilization. “Who’s that sound like? Hitler,” Golya said. The president was putting himself at a godly level, was her point; he was saying that man controls his destiny, not God. She saw that as arrogance. She mentioned that the president’s wife wore $600 shoes when she was helping the poor.

Golya, who was Kittykat on the Internet, saw her conflict with Obama as a battle of souls. She prayed for the president every day. “For his conversion.”

I asked her if she thought he was a secret Muslim. “Only he knows that; we don’t know that,” she said. “I’m praying for the conversion of his heart.”

That was as charitable a view of Obama as one could find at the rally in Scranton, or in Washington, D.C., two days later. The images were frightening. Obama with a Hitler mustache. Obama morphed to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Obama, Parasite in Chief. Obama the Muslim, Obama the Marxist. Even Obama the Antichrist: Jesus is the Messiah, not Obama.

A burly Pennsylvania correction officer named David McElwee held up a poster of Obama photoshopped as a half-naked African native in a hut with a grass skirt and a bone in his nose. That was Obamacare, “voodoo” health care, McElwee said.

This wasn’t politics, exactly, or at least it didn’t start as politics. It came from deeper down, from a stirring pot of disaffection and resentment that made the president a kind of fantasy villain. They dreamt about him. Obama was, quite literally, their nightmare. “They conjure up all these blood-and-soil feelings about Obama as a stranger, that’s what’s nasty about it,” says David Bromwich, a Yale scholar of literature and political thought.

The force and durability of the conjurers surprised everybody. Last winter and spring, the tea-party protests seemed wonky and anemic, and the anger feigned, and Democrats wrote the demonstrations off as Astroturf grassroots. But in the ensuing months, with the help of talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and then Glenn Beck, the attacks became more extreme and more personal, and the emotions caught fire. By July, the town halls had begun, with demonstrations against the president’s health-care-reform initiative, and the far right felt its power. “You can’t put this genie back in the bottle, it doesn’t matter what the corporate media say,” said World Net Daily’s Joseph Farah. At their rallies, this ragtag army exuded confidence that they would plague this president for years, just as Clinton and Bush had been defined by their haters. The liberal media finally began to label the Obama loonies as racist in mid-September, but where had they been all summer?

And where was Obama himself—as the separate reality grew like a second head on the American polity? He was being restrained and professorial, following the conventional wisdom that the crazies would drive moderates into his arms and leave the Republican Party in the wilderness for decades. Democratic operatives still argue this is the case, but the noise on the right has had an effect. The haters, amplified by cable news, had made him seem weak, a stunning achievement by the opposition. Maybe the pragmatism and absence of drama read as passive, and America abhors passive, needing drama. Obama had promised that reason and civility, once reintroduced in Washington, would win the day. But was that another elitist conceit?

A conversation about tactics ensued. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the town-hall madness as the “silly season,” but as it dawned on many Democrats that craziness was not necessarily a disqualifier for participating in the country’s political conversation, it raised private concerns about the limits of Obama’s political gifts. Some wished he had more of LBJ in him. “He’s never been a leader,” said one Democrat. Or, for that matter, more of Richard Nixon. “If I could get one message to David Axelrod, it’s that he should start talking about the silent majority,” said another Democrat.


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