Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was a reminder that the real Obama is not the same as the imaginary Obama being attacked day after day by the Republican candidates for president.
The stump speeches of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all share a theme: Obama is a man who does not believe in traditional American values. He is a president who wants to take money from the worthy wealthy and give it to a growing dependent class. This election, they say, is the last chance to save constitutional government from the radical in the Oval Office.
This ominous rhetoric reinforces all the xenophobic fictions that have been spread across the blogosphere, talk radio and the darker recesses of American politics since the 2008 campaign. During that election season, Obama was variously called a Muslim, a terrorist sympathizer, a leftist radical, a Kenyan-born alien, even the anti-Christ. Four years later, a large share of Republican voters continue to believe at least some of those things. During a recent Florida campaign event, one woman asked Rick Santorum why this Muslim non-citizen cannot be immediately driven from the White House. Shamefully, Santorum did not correct the woman’s paranoid delusions the way John McCain did in a similar situation in 2008. Instead, Santorum cravenly offered himself as the guy who could evict Obama.
Before their candidacies imploded, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry both tried to win votes by calling Obama a socialist. Romney, with more subtlety, notes the “European” flavor of the president’s ideology. Gingrich has made Obama’s alleged radicalism a permanent talking point. Twice in the speech he gave on the night of his victory in South Carolina, he mentioned radical leftist Saul Alinsky with the clear implication that Obama is an Alinsky devotee.
Apparently, Republicans think this is a winning campaign theme and, in the primaries, it may be. But, if the eventual nominee continues on this track in the fall campaign, he might run up against a hard reality: Barack Obama does not look like an anti-American crazy man to the majority of Americans. What he looks like is the guy who gave a speech before Congress on Tuesday night in which he celebrated the virtues of America’s armed forces and declared that “the United States is the one indispensable nation in world affairs," pledging that, as long as he is president, he intends to keep it that way.
He is the fellow who called for “some nation building right here at home” and proposed more research and development, energy exploration, job training and help for American manufacturers. He’s the one who called for a fairer tax system in which millionaires are not be taxed at a rate lower than their secretaries. Some consider this a radical idea, but, since polls indicate a big majority of Americans agree with it, it would be hard to sell the idea that it’s the Communist Manifesto.
The Republicans have one big thing going for them: The country is still struggling from the economic meltdown of 2008. It should be easy for the GOP nominee to gain ground with Ronald Reagan’s simple but sharp-edged question from 1980: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The voters answered that query by firing Jimmy Carter. Barack Obama could have a tough time dealing with a reprise of that question this year.
But what if the Republican question is, instead, “Do you want to get rid of this scary, un-American radical in the White House?” In that case, the answer just might be, “What the heck have you nutty Republicans been smoking?”