THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama: Naked, Black and Alone

Sometime over the next few days, the January issue of Golf Digest magazine will appear on newsstands nationwide. Gracing the cover will be none other than Pres. Barack Obama, joined by disgraced golfer Tiger Woods and the oy vey-inducing tag-line "10 Tips Obama Can Take from Tiger."

The cover's unfortunate timing would be humorous if it weren't so potentially disastrous. Laden with pundit-ready puns and ready-made race-bashing, the Tiger Woods photo-op is just one more distraction the Oval Office would rather do without

Indeed, from horny athletes to the White House party crashers, Gay marriage to West Bank Settlements, the Obama Administration has been beset by distractions almost since Inauguration day. Some -- like marriage equality and Middle Eastern peace -- are crucial policy issues gone amok. Others -- such as the Salahis and the Noble Prize drama, Michelle's biceps and the White House Hanukkah party -- are tabloid-styled silliness unworthy of Oval Office response.  Hovering in between are the Desiree Rogers and Henry Louis Gates debacles, that first-day-of-school video and Obama's last-minute Olympic sojourn -- legitimate issues bastardized by Beck and Limbaugh.

Whether organic or manufactured, personal or political, the distractions plaguing the Obama White House have reached a critical critical-mass.  Laden with double-talk -- not to mention double-standards -- they reflect a fascination with the First Family unprecedented in its scope and rancor. Confirming the old maxim "the personal is political," Obama's "distraction problem" also reveals some rather unfortunate truths about America's unease with race, class and elitism. Along the way, this national fascination with nonsense and non-stories obscures the real challenges facing the nation -- such as health care, poverty, climate change, foreign wars and social justice.

Unlike any President in recent history, Barack Obama came to the world stage naked, Black and alone. Lacking the family lineage of Bush II or Clinton's old-boy Arkansas machine, Obama offered America little more than ... well ... himself. There was no presidential father, but rather an absentee father. A single mother in place of a dynastic Waspy matriarch. A dark-skinned wife from Chicago's South Side instead of its leafy White suburbs. There were no summers in Kennebunkport to prepare Obama for his political ascent. And certainly no Texas crude to keep it flowing.

Of course, as Clinton's Lewinsky scandal and the Bush barfing incident confirm, Obama is hardly the first US president to endure missteps and faux pas. But he is the first to arrive to the White House without an elaborately-connected "kitchen cabinet" managing their fall-out -- and preventing mere distractions from becoming wholesale disasters. 

Remember, Bush came to Washington not just as a former Texas governor, but as a former First Son -- deeply entrenched at the highest levels of American business and politics. Indeed, Bush could not have entered the White House better established within the establishment. And with his Daddy's henchmen Dick Cheney and James Baker literally escorting him to the Oval Office, Bush -- in a sense -- simply had to show up to his Administration and activate the auto-pilot. 

The subsequent eight years were a veritable flow-chart of distractions and disgrace. But managed by this crack team of media-manipulators, the Bush-bashing never quite reached fever pitch. As a result, even with a pair of wars and economic collapse on his hands, Bush somehow escaped the type of personal vitriol now being heaped upon Pres. Obama both by a vengeful Right and an impatient Left.

It would be easy to blame the President's isolation solely on race. But like everything surrounding the Obama myth, the truth is far more complex. Breaking racial barriers is merely the most obvious of Obama's achievements. Far more nuanced -- yet no less significant -- is his relationship with  class, entitlement and privilege. 

During last year's presidential campaign, network news commentators often spoke of the "optics" of the Obama candidacy -- TV-talk for his brown skin. Yet the real optical reveal is of a president who bears little resemblance -- and comes from a far different background -- than the cabinet, Congress or military he commands. Unlike George Bush -- who was born into the political nobility -- or Hillary Clinton, who is married to it, Barack Obama canvassed and campaigned his way to the top. And like any commoner suddenly thrust among the elite, the Obama presidency elicits a deep unease that is further compounded by his race and outsiderness.

With every White House distraction, there emerges a sense that even Obama's most crucial allies aren't quite sure how to defend him -- how to protect a man who is just not quite one of their own. More worrisome, I suspect an Obama used to surviving solo may not know how to best ask -- if not demand -- the support he requires. Of course Michelle Obama remains rock-solid alongside her husband. But she has even less conventional political capital than the President. And, much like Barack, the First Lady is still grappling with the access and status that comes with her unanticipated White House residency. 

Even with Emmanuel and Axelrod, Holder and Hillary by his side, Pres. Obama stands alone within a Beltway boys-club still unsure what to make of him. American voters went for the common man in 2008 -- albeit a commoner of incomparable exceptionalism. Yet while American democracy may be rooted in the volk, perhaps the American masses cannot truly embrace a native son leading their nation.

Despite his shirt-less beach walks, Barack Obama is clearly not naked. And with a Caucasian mother, he's not entirely Black, either. Nor must he be alone in a country that has never more needed a president with such a populist past. As we brace ourselves for the Tiger Golf Digest issue, let's hope this is the last distraction Pres. Obama will need to deflect. There's a war to win, economy to revive, environment to save and DOMA/DODT to repeal.

As he ends his first year in office, Pres. Obama's second 12 months must avoid sensationalism and scandal by any means necessary and return to the policies -- and promises -- that got him elected in the first place. No more Tiger covers or royal lunch snubs, Equality Marches or Netanyahu nonsense. No more distractions from the outside or within. The President still has the American people behind him -- and must use clarity and sincerity to retain their affections. As for Washington itself -- much like many Black men in the big city before him, Obama is still struggling to secure the back-up he deserves.