I think the most uncomfortable part of this past Wednesday's presidential debate between President Obama and former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, came in Obama's closing statement. It came when Obama reminded us all that four years ago, he said he would not be a "perfect president." The exact line was, "You know, four years ago I said that I'm not a perfect man and I wouldn't be a perfect president. And that's probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I've kept."
I think the most disturbing part of this admission is not just that it came at seemingly the worst time in the debate, or in the closing statements and after Obama's lackluster performance. The most disturbing part was that it was made in the first place and that in bringing it up again it would seem to invite most spectators of the debate to, again, think of Obama in terms of his abilities to be perfect or not.
If to be human is to be imperfect, then why does Obama keep bringing up the obvious? When I voted for Obama four years ago, I never asked for perfection. I've never asked that of him or any other U.S. president. I assumed, when he took office four years ago, that he couldn't do everything that he set out to do. No president does. I never assumed that he wouldn't make any mistakes or that he wasn't mortal and, thus, like the rest of us. He was running for president then, after all, not the office of god.
"Maybe it's because he's black," said one cashier in the café that I watched the debate in on Wednesday night. He, a middle aged white guy who called himself an Independent, wasn't really being serious. But his statement struck me. Maybe this can all be chalked up to the fact that he's black and that even in being in the highest office of the United States of America, he is still black and, thus, aware of how his color figures, so often, into judgments of the job he's doing and the job he's done as a president.
No one asked for his perfection outright, but perhaps we all did. When he became the first president, the first black president, the bar for him was set at a level that hasn't ever really been set for any other U.S. president. From the birthers to the tea partiers to his most loyal adherents in the "Yes We Can" movement, there has been an unprecedented emphasis placed on this president as a black man. Even as he worked to just be a regular guy running for office, his race kept coming up. It came up when he went to church. It came up in how he walked out of Air Force One as a president. It came up at tea party rallies. It came up, discretely, in questions over his faith. It came up when Republicans in Congress refused to be anything but impediments to anything he wanted to do to "change America."
Conversations on Obama as a black man often focus on the external reality of what this means to our country, but in Wednesday's debate, I began to think about what this means to him as a human being. Now with graying hair and more of a furrowed brow and "skeptical" disposition, I began to wonder, in looking at the president, now four years removed from the man he once was, how all of this has changed him.
In "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B DuBois, twentieth-century African American thinker and sociologist, talked about something called double consciousness. He writes about this "condition" in African Americans by saying, "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." I wonder if this two-ness of which Du Bois speaks is what colors Obama's perception of his imperfection. I wonder about the man behind the shell we saw in Wednesday night's debate.
"How are you doing, really?" is what I would have liked to ask him before he abruptly left the stage with his wife, Michelle, leaving the crowd of Romney's family and company to leave the most lasting impression. I wonder if he really wants to endure four more years of what he's been through as a person these past four years.
When Obama reminded us about his being imperfect, he reminded us that he wants to be perfect because he knows that that's the standard some have and will continue to set for him no matter what he does in office. He's doubly conscious of how he is different even as he tries so hard just to be the same, and that must feel tragic.
If I could tell Obama anything today, I would say forget about perfection and those who think you should be perfect. We are all imperfect, me, the guy I met in the café, we are, all of us, imperfect. So just aim to be the best president that you can be. I believe in you and I hope you do, too.