Imagine an ordinary president, an unremarkable leader who makes some policy changes but occupies the White House with minimal fuss and limited upset. A few generations later, when people gather round at a party trying to list the presidents, half drunk and laughing, this one will be a name on the tip of everyone’s tongue—who was president then, anyway? That president certainly won’t be Barack Obama, and not because some people think he’s a mediocre president at best; he’ll be forever held up as an example of the first black presidency in America, and yesterday’s election results seem to indicate that America is unhappy.
It’s a burden that probably no person could have stood up to, and yet, liberals and conservatives alike had unreasonable expectations of the president that, it was clear, would never be satisfied. Some of those expectations were almost certainly rooted in his race and the argument that he should be exceptional. White presidents with similar records—Obama’s were recently spelled out by unlikely defender Paul Krugman—would be perhaps remembered as not the bottom of the barrel, though perhaps not entirely remarkable, either. Yet, for Obama, the bar is much higher, and even had he achieved greatness, the bar would have been moved higher still.
“For Obama,” wrote Stanley Robinson at the Washington Post earlier this year, “we can rule out placing him in the best or the worst categories. He said he wanted to be a great, transforming president but has fallen far short.” While the idea that the sitting president may not have been a terribly remarkable occupant of the office may perturb many of his remaining fans, it’s an honest assessment of a president who, overall, hasn’t been very impressive.
When people argue that this year’s midterm elections were about race, they’re right, but it’s also about more than that: It’s about the impossible silent expectations put upon pioneers, the people who are the first at anything. The first black president, say, or the first prominent gay CEO. They contrast with what we might consider an “unmarked class,” the ordinary heterosexual white man—the “everyman,” if you will. Everymen have held the presidency since General George Washington took office in 1789, and while the election of Barack Obama in 2008 shook up the history of the American presidency, it hardly liberalized it.
The midterms of a President’s second term are widely regarded as a referendum on a President’s time in office. They present a chance for the opposing party to take over Congress, for local races to swing one way or the other, for individuals to turn out in droves in the hopes of either regaining control, or showing their approval (or disapproval) at the ballot box. For some, they are a precursor of the critical presidential race to follow in two years’ time: Will we or won’t we? Will we lose the White House in 2016, or will we take it back?
Were the midterms this year a referendum on the Obama presidency, or rage at his imperfections? Was his approval rating in the weeks leading up to the midterms—the lowest ever for a second term president in the second November after re-election—a comment on common frustrations with a president who wasn’t performing as expected, or a comment on Barack Obama, Presidential Pioneer? The Americans who hit the polls yesterday spoke less to the desire to challenge the policies at the White House, and more to hit back at a president who didn’t live up to their expectations. Obama’s low ratings may have even hurt the Democrats, argue some authorities.
Barack Obama represented in many senses the impossible dream for American liberals. He was a compelling speaker with big ideas in 2008, who crashed and burned when he arrived in the White House and realized how vicious Washington could be. He faced obstructionism at every turn, the legacy of failed Bush policies, two wars, and a host of problems that would have been a challenge for any president to inherit—yet, liberals seemed to expect that he would be able to wave a magic wand and fix them all. “Magic wand” is more than a turn of phrase for a black president.
Writing in 2007, the L.A. Times‘ David Ehrenstein noted that the presumptive presidential candidate was filling the role of “magical negro” for white Americans. Ehrenstein wrote, “He’s there to assuage white ‘guilt’ (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
The classic American trope came up again in a far more offensive context on the Rush Limbaugh Show, when Paul Shanklin drew upon the Ehrenstein piece to coin lyrics like:
Some say Barack’s ‘articulate’/
And bright and new and ‘clean’/
The media sure loves this guy/
A white interloper’s dream!
For white people, Obama wasn’t just a new liberal hope after four bitter Bush years: He was also a new wave of progressivism, representing the bold and daring idea that a black man could be president. With that came the unspoken expectation that as a black man, he perform perfectly in the role—a phenomenon akin to that seen with other minorities who are forced to break the color, or gender, or sexuality barrier. We expected more of the first female astronaut, the first openly gay athlete, the first disabled congresswoman; somehow, these individuals were expected to act as spokespeople for their entire class.
We’ll see the same with Tim Cook. He’s not just a man with very difficult shoes to fill at Apple, a firm whose former CEO achieved cult status. He’s also a prominent gay man in Silicon Valley, which results in additional scrutiny—the question for many isn’t whether he’s a competent CEO, but whether he’s a competent gay CEO. If he fails Apple, his conservative critics could allege it was not because of his inability to handle the massive company, but because of his sexuality—and by doing so, he will have let “the cause” down, making things difficult for other LGBT people in the tech industry.
Engaging in a hypothetical, should Hillary Clinton run (and win) in 2016, she’ll be facing unprecedented scrutiny not as the president following the Obama administration, nor as a president working to pick up the pieces of a still very much broken nation. The political situation will, in fact, be more or less irrelevant in the face of the unavoidable fact that she’s a woman—this will become the overwhelming story.
Just as we saw Clinton fighting sexism at every turn during her term as Secretary of State, where reporters and the public alike seemed more interested in her pantsuits than her foreign policy, we’d be treated to a similar level of prurient interest in a Hillary Clinton presidency. President Clinton wouldn’t be just another president—she certainly wouldn’t be allowed to be mediocre, or average. She’d need to be outstanding, a beacon of democracy and female accomplishment.
In the face of social pressures like these, it becomes impossible to be mediocre or unremarkable. It’s perhaps not surprising that the public and the media can’t decide what to do with President Obama; they don’t want to admit that maybe he was just an average President, with some highlights and lowlights along the way. He is doomed to be either classed as an utter failure, or an exceptionally accomplished man (which is, in itself, something that carries strong racial overtones, as it implies that performing well in the Oval Office would set him apart from other black men, rather than other humans). Given the recent discontent with the Obama presidency, it seems safe to assume that his history will likely be judged as one of failure—one unjust to the president, as well as to the people of color who will hopefully follow him in office.
Krugman nailed it when he discussed the expectations put on Obama, and how Americans need to adjust their views:
This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Obama hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn’t quite say, a big deal.
“[T]he difference between a strong leader and just an average one is that after such deliberations, the strong leaders hew to principle and the long-term interests of their people and make bold and decisive choices when necessary, even if those choices open them up to political attack,” said David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy after a security speech in January. Unlike Krugman, he didn’t damn with faint praise, but he did highlight the fact that the president often appeared torn between stated personal convictions and the pressure of advisors and other influences on his administration. This could be the undoing of Obama’s legacy, as it may be what he is remembered for in retrospectives of the presidency.
When will people like President Obama, or Tim Cook, or Hillary Clinton, just be ordinary people? To do so, they need to become members of unmarked classes, so they can be treated like the President X’s of the world. Who really remembers anything Harding did, or Cleveland? Polk and Fillmore are streets in San Francisco, but what did their namesakes do in office? You might remember Taft for his outstanding moustache, but can you name a single piece of legislation he promoted while in office? His cow, Pauline Wayne, may be more famous than he is.
Internationally speaking, many other nations have already grappled with this issue. In Zambia, Guy Scott is actually making history by being the first white president—and Zambians largely don’t care. England, naturally, has been through a number of queens, and the Brits seem unconcerned that Elizabeth II is a woman. Politicians like Angela Merkel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (also a Nobel laureate), and Park Geun-hye are judged as leaders first and women second, which is not to say that sexism is entirely absent from discussions about their fitness in office, and Europe beat the U.S. to having a person of color in office with Alessandro de Medici in 1530. Back on U.S. soil, 2008 also marked the first election of a transgender mayor, when Stu Rasmussen was voted into office in Silverton, Oregon. This year, Paula Overby of Minnesota made a bid to become the first transgender Congresswoman.
With each passing year, and passing head of state, the idea of marked groups like women, people of color, disabled people, and LGBT people being in positions of leadership becomes less startling, and the public can instead focus on their political roles and competence to lead. The ability to govern a nation or lead a company, after all, should be determined not by innate aspects of your identity, but by your skillset, and being unimpressed with political performance doesn’t equate to a condemnation of an entire class of people.
Now that the long, painful election cycle for 2016 has begun, with campaign offices barely packing up before they reopen to start stumping all over again, it’s time for the electorate to be honest with itself about what it expects of Barack Obama: Does it want him to be a model black man, or just a decent president?