One repeatedly hears progressives say that President Obama is “spineless.” This is puzzling. Yes, he tends to project a moderate, temperate demeanor, but it takes little psychological acuity to realize that that is not, generally speaking, strong evidence for spinelessness. If we judge Obama by how often he gets what he wants, one must judge him remarkably effective. Exhibit A must surely be health care reform, where he has succeeded where every Democratic president since World War Two has failed. Anyway, one must assume people want what they seek. On that basis, one could reasonably infer that Obama is a centrist New Democrat cast in the same mould as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and is doing a pretty good job of it. Consider: he is a member of a party dominated by New Democrat centrists for the whole course of his political career (Clinton ran successfully for president in 1992, but setting aside Obama as the case in question, the Democrats have fielded centrist presidential nominees ever since, and Obama’s first election to public office was in 1997). So perhaps the reason he does not stand up to Republicans more often is that he wants some of the same things they want. Countless passages from Audacity of Hope bear this out.
Now misunderstanding Obama is by no means exclusively a progressive tendency. Many on the Right believe that he is best understood by a careful scrutiny of Saul Alinsky and Malcolm X. A rather implausible picture of him as a resentful radical concerned with anticolonialism has gained currency on the Right due to Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage. But rage is conspicuous by its absence, and since no other New Democrat presidents and presidential nominees before him have been characterized this way, some have thought that racial stereotyping must be at work. Obama must be angry and far Left: black people are like that.
I try to approach this sort of thing gently, for accusing people of racism is no small thing. But I’ve lived long enough to know that we all have our blind spots and that good people can thoughtlessly default to assumptions acquired by osmosis until challenged. The arc of history is often longer than we think. So I ask you: why would so many Democrats, in the teeth of broader social evidence, institutional evidence, the evidence of his own writings, policy proposals while campaigning, and actions in office, continue to regard him as much farther to the left than he actually is (just as Republicans do) but, rather than abnormally angry, abnormally passive, always eager to step and fetch it for his conservative masters?