Meet the New President, Same as the Old President
Four years ago, if you were a particularly hokey newspaper columnist with a deadline, you might have remarked upon the symmetry of Martin Luther King Day being so close to Barack Obama’s inauguration. “King’s Dream isn’t totally fulfilled, but surely we are a step closer thanks to the image of Obama, a black man born to a white woman, standing at the heart of our nation’s capital and being sworn in as President of the United States,” you could have written, and so on and so on until you had 750 words and could take the rest of the day off.
And four years ago, it was probably OK to feel a little hokey about Obama. As it turned out, he didn’t usher in a new age of liberalism and tolerance and bipartisanship in America—it was pretty stupid, in hindsight, to expect him to do so—but his specific actions as president shouldn’t take away from the powerful symbolism of a black man becoming president. I remember the night of the election, when the streets of Brooklyn flooded with people yelling and hugging and high-fiving each other and it felt appropriate, for once, to not be cynical about the future. If you didn’t get a little bit pumped up while listening to Young Jeezy yell-sing, “My president is black,” you were probably one of those people who were already busy writing blog posts titled, “Obama the New Hitler? No Gun Control Socialism Kenya Obama Not in My Name!”
If you’re still feeling warm and fuzzy about our president four years into his term, you’ve been living in a very different world than I have. Obama turned out to be a politician constrained by all sorts of circumstances beyond his control, and not particularly determined to fundamentally change America—in other words, he’s like every president to ever hold office. You can’t run a country as large and complex and militarized as the United States without cutting at least a few ethical and moral corners. I think it’s worth asking if you can be a US president in 2013 without doing at least a few things that might be called evil, or at least picking between two evil alternatives. (Should Obama bomb Syria, causing the deaths of thousands, or live with the knowledge that people are dying every day and he has the power to intervene?) Which is to say that someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. could never be president.