05/29/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2013

Barracked Obama

Just six months into his second term, the president seems confined to the barracks, so to speak. He is unable to get any significant legislation through Congress. Forget about working with him, Mitch McConnell disdains even sharing a drink.

Here is the most powerful man in the world, the supposed leader of the free world, rendered helpless in his own backyard. How has this situation come to pass?

Obama is the country's first black president, but actually he is half white. In fact, since he was raised by whites, his claim to being white is stronger than being black. But blackness in the form of the one-drop rule was defined in the country during the time of slavery. Even when slavery was abolished, the one-drop rule persisted.

What was the one-drop rule? That a drop of black ink in a cup of milk makes it all black. The standards may not be so strict now, but 50:50 still means black, not white.

Maybe it's better to call him a man of color. But, who isn't colored? Whites, no matter what they think, are too, varying hues of pink, yellow, and brown. Oh, pardon me, if you didn't like the yellow bit. And maybe bronze should have replaced the brown.

Obama, then, is unquestionably black. His attraction lies in part in his light skin, or as Joe Biden so sagaciously suggested, on being "clean." Some Americans would rather put the white back in the White House. Obama sullies it, you see.

Obama learned his lesson quickly after first standing up for his friend, the Harvard professor Henry Gates, and then quickly backing off after a nationwide police outcry. He realized that he, and his decidedly-darker wife, would have to, if not abjure, certainly back-pedal on their "blackness," if they wanted to have a successful presidency.

Much is made of Obama squandering his mandate by pushing through Obamacare. A rabidly right-wing Tea Party emerged, which lost no opportunity to mock his race (the black one, not the white). A congressman from the Deep South shouted him down as a liar during a presidential address to Congress. Not in living memory has a president been insulted thus. Perhaps never.

It is no coincidence that large tracts of the South seem to share the Tea Party's antipathy to the president; in fact, it could be argued that the Tea Party's very bastion is the South.

Reconstruction is still a horrid memory for many southern whites. Liberated slaves were catapulted into positions where whites had to rub shoulders with them. Out came the Klan and Jim Crow. Civil rights pushed back, but no black was considered a credible presidential hopeful until Colin Powell. A war hero, always a plus in American politics, also light-skinned, another plus, he seemed to have a reasonable shot until he backed away, for reasons never entirely clear.

It took a southern white president to implode for a Muslim-sounding, pearly-toothed, colored man to take center stage. America had its "black moment." White guilt was said to have played a part in his rise. Many, both black and white, debunked the notion. They claimed that there was no such thing as white guilt.

Others noted how his light skin made him less threatening, and more attractive, to those, quite literally, of the fair sex. Yet others asserted that America had transcended racism to realize the Constitution's ideal of all men being equal.

Even as most blacks exulted in Obama's ascent, some whites resented it. Their fear, even if furtively expressed, was that a successful Obama presidency would open the floodgates for blacks and other people of color. Health reform was therefore tarred as voodoo mumbo-jumbo socialism out to disfigure the country.

But imagine if Obama's signature theme had been gun control, or even climate change. Gun rampages have become such an epidemic now that gun proponents have been forced on the back foot. But gun control legislation has met a stealthy death.

Any control measures in 2009, when shootings were not as widespread as today, would have ripped the country asunder. For many Americans taking their guns away is akin to stripping them of their religion.

As regards climate change, after being chastened by the treatment that Obamacare received, Obama himself has given it a quiet burial, only to deliver an eulogy now and then to keep himself on the right side of his left base.

America has a black president, but is it ready for one? Will it let him govern, or will it force him to become a show boy? Obama is frequently contrasted with Bill Clinton. How the latter overcame the torment of health reform to reach across the aisle and leave behind an enduring legacy. How he was a man, no matter the personal flaws, who loved the thrust and parry of politics, who converted Republicans to his cause.

The professor from Chicago gets the rap for being a supercilious know-it-all, unwilling to press the flesh and get his hands dirty. Lessons in people skills are imparted to him, mostly by white Americans, who conveniently forget that his task as a black man in a white world is more difficult than that of Bubba in Bubba's land.

Obama can be faulted on many counts: not focusing sharply enough on the economy, inadequately promoting health reform, not holding up to the ideals of the Nobel. But he did not hand over health reform to an arguably extra-constitutional authority as Bill Clinton did, nor has he, as yet, drowned us in preemptive warfare as George W. Bush waged.

The intransigence that he faces from intractable whites is insufferable, and not just for him. It may crush the first black president, barrack him so much that no one of color could seriously aspire to the post again, but what does that say about us as a country?