Obama’s invisible moderation

As was pointed out in the news media, a short time before Obama actually nominated Merrick Garland, Orrin Hatch was quoted thus:

[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man. He probably won’t do that because this appointment is about the election. So I’m pretty sure he’ll name someone the [liberal Democratic base] wants.

This man has had eight years to get to know this president. Why did the nomination surprise him? He really doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, and cannot perceive that Obama is a moderate. Obama was not trolling and this was not really a political maneuver. He is not a radical ultra-leftist Black Panther (unfortunately), yet this escapes nearly everyone on both sides of the political aisle. The daftness of Hatch, and the republican obstructionism on the nomination is just the most recent example of a more general pattern.

The nation should be humiliated: Obama has always been judged by the color of his skin, and not by the content of his character, or his policies. He could have been twice as liberal as he has been, and he would have encountered the same level of enmity from  republicans, and the same level of suspicion, and birtherism. He has not been much more progressive than a typical Democrat of the recent era, yet enjoys near unconditional support from the black community.

These issues were discussed at length by Ta-Nehisi Coates, here. Here I only want to add a few things I’ve noticed that were not addressed there that reflect my own perspective. And we are entering a time where we can begin to look with a clearer hindsight.

It seems to me that he is in an impossible situation. No one can unilaterally alter the world they are interacting with, not completely. People take cues on how to behave towards us from how we behave towards them, but this tendency has its limits and he has proven a master at pressing to those limits. Yet as president he has had to try to improve a country which simply does not want to cooperate with him and is always suspicious of him. I think history will record him as a much lesser president than he could have been if he were not in charge of country with deeply rooted assumptions of white supremacy. The nation has suffered many lost opportunities over the course of his two terms for its mistrust.

This last point brings me to an often overlooked aspect of racism. People don’t seem to understand how the oppressor is also harmed. There are always opportunity costs – it is easy to see all the ways that whites have benefited from practices of exploitation and dispossession, but all the ways that whites have suffered for this are invisible. The costs suffered by everyone only become visible when you seriously consider the alternative.

The alternative course would have generated many more black doctors. Criminals have been created where instead there should be scientists, engineers, and teachers. This gross wastage is invisible because even now most people, including liberal whites and most black folks, do not adequately reckon with just how profound the lost potential is. The world in which that potential was realized is so radical and foreign from ours seeing it requires more imagination than most people can muster (1,2).

How much better a president could we have had? How much more progress would have been made? I hope this keeps you up at night. We haven’t got a lot of time left. This summer is going to be incredibly hot and global civilization has little time to be bothered with lingering, petty tribalism.


  1. This brings to mind a thought experiment, which I might write about in depth later: What would you, yourself think about slavery if you happened to be born into the American south in 1830 as the child of a plantation owner? How far beyond the bounds created by that culture would you be able to reach? What would you have to grab hold of as a lemma? Would you be able to grapple with the gravity and the depth of the evil of the thing? We are prompted to ask, what are the things that we do today that history will record as grievous crimes?
  2. It is understood I could say the same about women and oppressed classes throughout history. And again as I’ve posted earlier, I can’t exclude the possibility that structures of dominance and power are unavoidable.
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