Okay, so now we finally know: Barack Obama is an American. (Well, he's a Hawaiian actually, but I suppose we can put any lingering sovereignty issues aside for the moment.) In a startling revelation sure to send chills up the virtual spines of rightwing operatives everywhere, the President delivered a speech from the White House asserting in persuasively proactive fashion that indeed, "people have seen [my] birth certificate."
Whew. Let's all take a deep breath at the majesty of the moment. He's one of us, after all...
Except not so much. Obama's national origins are less problematic than his plans for the nation's future. While the birthers and state-house hacks obsess over his convoluted neonatal underpinnings, far greater matters percolate at the President's behest. To his credit, Obama's speech referenced precisely this sense of distraction and obfuscation that serves to undermine genuine progress on more pressing concerns:
"We're not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We're not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers."
Good words, but there's a fundamental problem lurking in the shadows. To wit: he doesn't really mean it.
I'd like to think he does, of course, but after the inevitable letdown from his campaign rhetoric to the realities of governance, it's hard to muster even a modicum of faith in the messenger at this point. Obama ran as a progressive on myriad issues, from war and the economy to healthcare and human rights. What we got instead is a Wall Street crony and war-machine acolyte who seems content to bail water with a thimble while the Titanic continues its inevitable submersion.
It's particularly telling that the major legislative achievement of his administration has been a sham healthcare bill that privatizes personal risks while socializing public profits into corporate hands. Did he end the war in Iraq? Sort of, unless you count all the private contractors and military bases still in operation there (not to mention the seamless shift of major fronts over to Afghanistan). Did he close Guantanamo? Only to the pursuit of transparency and justice. Did he save the economy with bailouts? Perhaps, but the economy he "saved" isn't the one we ever actually wanted.
With the reelection campaign ready to begin in earnest, it's worth asking to see President Obama's progressive credentials before the Democratic wagons begin circling around us. It seems quite likely that the biggest selling point for continuing with the present administration will be that the other side's version will be a lot worse. But the basic strategy of "I'm not the other guy" leaves a major question lingering in the air, namely: Who are you, then?
On some level, I think the President is aware of the ironies here. In his birth-defense speech, he talks about substantive issues including education, infrastructure, and the future that we're leaving for our children. This isn't the same sort of tin-ear lassitude we got from the previous administration. Obama's virtue is that he sees the crises and isn't above letting us know:
"We've got some enormous challenges out there. There are a lot of folks out there who are still looking for work. Everybody is still suffering under high gas prices. We're going to have to make a series of very difficult decisions about how we invest in our future but also get a hold of our deficit and our debt -- how do we do that in a balanced way."
But seeing and believing are two different things. The birthers can look at Obama's birth certificate forever and still not believe he's an American. By the same token, progressives may be tempted to believe he's on the side of justice and equality, yet will oftentimes reject the contravening evidence right before their eyes.
Now that we can rest easy about his innate Americanness, let's actually hold the President accountable to pursue the highest ideals that define the national enterprise.