Every American president at least since Harry Truman, and arguably for much longer, has encountered a unique political dilemma created by two conditions. The first is a political reality. Capitalism and imperial expansion have dominated American politics since the beginning of the republic – and, if we are to properly understand the events of November 22nd, 1963 as a military coup – the end of the republic. In this context, all Presidents since Lyndon Johnson have been servants of the Deep State, essentially spokespersons for the empire, certainly not its rulers, not even the primary “decider,” as George W. Bush called himself, well aware from the start that they have far less power than the public thinks.
The second reality is mythological, and it involves his symbolic role as king-figure. He embodies the mythic figure of the King for his people. As envisioned by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, the King is the archetypal image of order, blessing and fertility. When, in dreams or myths, he acts, he does so as a representative of the Realm – or the Self – in its perfect, ideal fullness, in concert with his Queen.
These two conditions require that he play two opposite aspects of our national mythology against each other. Compared to ancient and indigenous narratives, the myth of American innocence offers us a severely diminished understanding of the possibilities of the psyche. We all learn quite early on that at the deepest level, to be an American is to aspire to be a success, a winner, or mythologically speaking, a hero. We also learn that our only alternative is to be a loser – or a victim. In this drama, we all make our destinies as individuals, and we are all either winner/heroes or loser/victims. And we all understand further that if we are losers it is no one’s fault but our own.
So the President’s – every President’s – role in the drama requires that he do two things. He must continue at all times to amplify the national mood of paranoia and fear of The Other so as to justify armed intervention abroad, a continuing national military state and repression at home. In other words, he must manipulate the traditional white American sense of being the innocent victim, or at least the potential victim, of some dark (and dark-skinned), irrational, violent, predatory outsider. This of course, would be nothing new to him, since anyone even aspiring to his office, not to mention those actually vetted, would be perfectly aware of it.
At the same time, he must play the exact opposite of the victim, the Hero. As Bush endlessly repeated after 9/11/2001, it is absolutely certain that America will prevail against the external Other (formerly Communism, now Islamic terrorism), because the nation, which he embodies, is charged with the divine mission of defeating evil and spreading freedom and opportunity. He must reassure Americans of his – and our – ability to meet the threat and defeat it, because not to do so would be to call our most basic national and personal identities into question.
Sadly (for those who expected something more), Barack Obama has slid seamlessly into this role. Perhaps he has had no choice; perhaps he is a true believer. But his statements about the war in Afghanistan are essentially no different from Lyndon Johnson’s on Vietnam or Bush’s on Iraq: We are in terrible danger, but we will prevail, because we are Americans, and God himself has ordained that we should be the saviors of the world.
But in America only a white man can play this role without being burned. Running for President, Obama was attacked both for being “too Black” and for being “not Black enough.” The realities of racial hatred – and fundraising – in America forced him to choose the latter, and to emphasize a “post-racial” philosophy. For this he was very richly rewarded by the financial sector. His choice, however, had consequences.
The irony is that he has been unable to defend himself from the reactionary, Tea Party attacks regarding his place of birth, his middle name, his “socialist” inclinations and, of course, his skin color. His dilemma is truly unique. Even as he has been forced to continue demonizing others (dark-skinned people abroad and deporting Latinos at the borders), he has become the subject of demonization himself. He has become the President as Other, who shamelessly accepts the abuse even as he faithfully serves his corporate masters.
In another time and place, he would have been known as one of the “house slaves.” These were the slaves who served the master inside his house, the cooks, nannies and butlers, who lived in slightly better conditions than their brethren toiling in the fields. But they were still slaves.
Obama, like every President before him for several generations, worked desperately for years to become an occupant of the White House, only to become a slave to it.