Monday, August 18, 2008

Anger and Racial Attitudes

There's a large part of me that wants Barack Obama to be pissed.

I want him to be pissed because I just read John McCain's newest national security attack, and I'm pissed. It would be reassuring and satisfying to see Obama react angrily to McCain's accusations, which aren't as odious as his abhorrent "rather lose a war" line but still strike me as beyond the pale. I would very much enjoy watching Obama pound a lectern and call McCain on his words.

The Obama campaign could use a healthy dose of rage, I think. Oh, they're not running some head-in-the-clouds, Aristotelian campaign. They've hit McCain hard, they've run attack ads, they've responded forcefully with statements from spokesmen and surrogates. But there's something inherently reactive about Obama's general election campaign so far. The polls are tightening, and while national tracking polls aren't all that useful, the fact that Ohio is now a dead heat is altogether more worrisome.

There are times when I want Obama to pull a Billy Beane and just throw a freaking chair, for God's sake. Take umbrage at something other than the New Yorker. The candidate himself, not the campaign. When Obama pointed out that the Republicans who were mocking his energy plan for encouraging Americans to properly inflating their tires seemed "proud of being ignorant," that was a good moment. It was the candidate himself leveling a compelling charge that fed into a greater narrative. (The Bush administration is anti-science and anti-objective evidence. McCain is running for a third Bush term. Therefore...) I don't care how strong a statement the campaign's spokesman makes, it will never receive as much attention as a brutal attack from John McCain himself.

I sometimes find myself wondering why Obama doesn't begin every speech or town hall meeting in Ohio by contrasting the "Barack Obama Economic Plan" with the "Phil Gramm-John McCain Economic Plan." I rather desperately want him to stand at that lectern or pace that stage and say:

"I'm sure you all saw that John McCain gave a big speech on the slopes of Aspen last week. And I'm sure you all saw that his good friend Phil Gramm was back in the front row. I'm glad to see it. It's always tough to watch friends fight. I'm happy that Senator Gramm is back advising Senator McCain. After all, Senator McCain fought for his friend when Senator Gramm ran for president in 1996, so Senator Gramm is right to return the favor. It's what friends do.

"But the American people should wonder about this friendship. They should wonder about the relationship between Senators McCain and Gramm, since many think Senator Gramm could be Treasury Secretary in a McCain administration. They should ask how close Senator McCain is to a man who called the United States 'a nation of whiners' and blithely declared that we are suffering from merely a 'mental recession.'

"They should ask Senator McCain whether he agrees with Senator Gramm when he says that the waitress in Cleveland who works 60 hours a week just to pay her bills but can't afford the gas she needs to get to work is a 'whiner.' They should ask Senator McCain whether he agrees with Senator Gramm that the laid-off steel worker in Lorain is simply going through a 'mental recession.' They should ask Senator McCain whether he agrees with Senator Gramm that the millions of unemployed Americans who face skyrocketing food and energy prices are just imagining their problems."

That would be so very, very satisfying. But would it be a good idea?

I suspect the pundits, folks like Joel Klein with their thoroughly middle-of-the-road philosophies, would say no. They might be right, but for the wrong reasons. Because when I think about an angry Obama, I can't help but wonder about the explosive racial tensions that simmer beneath the national surface.

Specifically, it occurs to me that Obama might be terrified of running headlong into the angry black man archetype that still haunts us. Obama reached this point by displaying an almost preternatural coolness and self-confidence. For an African-American to gain mainstream acceptance, he's usually had to be pleasant above and beyond the manners usually required of white celebrities.

We've made a lot of strides in this country, but our willingness to embrace only those African-American figures who display no glaring personality flaws doesn't speak that well of us. Michael Jordan and LeBron James are great on the court and flawless off it, so we love them. We have not yet shown that we can embrace an African-American with glaringly obvious problems like we have embraced several white John Daly figures.

A raging, lectern-pounding Obama is a persona with which we have not yet been confronted. The country's ability to accept it remains questionable. And so Democrats might be forced to accept a candidate who cannot turn to anger as a weapon in this election.

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