05 November 2008 / WASHINGTON—African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it. Said scholar and activist Mark L. Denton, “It just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can’t catch a break.”
Who could have imagined one of the “messes that other people left behind” would be the month and half long (and sure to be longer) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Last week Maureen Dowd summed up Obama’s biographical trajectory since his magical election in 2008 (“A Storyteller Loses the Story Line“). “It’s not a good narrative arc,” she wrote: “The man who walked on water is now ensnared by a crisis under water.” A little further along in her column, citing the post-election piece from the Onion above, Dowd opines:
The oil won’t stop flowing, but the magic has. Barack Obama is a guy who is accustomed to having stuff go right for him. He’s gotten a lot of breaks: two opponents in his U.S. Senate race in Illinois felled by personal scandals; a mismanaged presidential campaign by Hillary Clinton; an economic collapse that set the stage for a historic win, memorably described by the satiric Onion newspaper as “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”
A lot of people voted for Obama because they thought he could somehow rise above the exigencies and disasters that continually befall a nation of nearly 310,000,000 people. His rhetorical flair as a senator and presidential candidate was convincing. He promised to bring change to Washington and the business-as-usual rigmarole that many have grown desperately tired of. It’s tough to measure change in a presidency in the midst of its unfolding, to be sure. The medical reform bill has been a big change, yes, and straight out of the gate Obama snagged the Nobel Peace Prize. That was a quick change in the tenor of global opinion on the U.S. government. But here, on the ground, we still have Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran in more or less the same ways we had them under the Bush administration. As Obama faces what will likely be the largest environmental disaster of his presidency, how different has he come across to the U.S. citizenry than did George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? While many in the the media are asking why Obama is not more visibly upset or vocally empathic with the people of the Gulf Region, I am reminded of questions put to Bush’s press secretary about why he was absent for days after the floods overtook New Orleans. Should we expect more from Obama than we did from Bush? In his run up to the White House, did Bush instill hope for change in people the same way Obama did during his campaign? Can Obama, as Dowd presses him in her column last week, seize his story line and reshape its current characterization of himself of a passive, detached, acquiescent man and rise to the heights of his one-time soaring rhetoric of change and progress and hope? Right now he seems too meek.