No Longer Rolled by the GOP

Obama Boehner

While Republicans are complaining that Obama failed to reach out to them in his inauguration speech, Obama supporters are largely pleased as they counter that his outreach to the GOP in his first term didn’t fare too well. A number believe that, early in his presidency, Obama was almost criminally naïve about the possibilities of bipartisan compromise and that consequently he got rolled. If only he had been as firm as he is being now, they say, he would have accomplished much more. After all, by playing fairly tough on the fiscal cliff in recent weeks and by refusing to give in to hostage demands around the debt ceiling, he has gotten much of what he wants.

I tend to be less hard on Obama’s early stance, thinking that he needed to give the Republicans a chance to collaborate, even if they didn’t. But I tend to be naïve about these matters myself. I can see how he may well have been like the protagonist of one of his favorite novels, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Invisible Man (we never learn his name) also starts off naïve.

Fortunately, he also wises up.

The story begins with IM trying to impress the white establishment figures in his segregated town who have given him a college scholarship. He thinks that they admire him because he’s smart but, as it turns out, they don’t differentiate him from the lower class blacks, some of whom he is forced to fight in a boxing match with blindfolds for their entertainment.

IM emerges bloodied but still determined to give the speech he wrote for the occasion. If only they can hear him, he thinks, they will be impressed. The speech, not unlike Obama’s first inauguration speech, is basically about how we can all get along. Although IM’s white audience mock him throughout, they are not threatened and allow him to continue. After all, nothing he is saying challenges the existing order. When he talks about “social responsibility,” it is about blacks and whites each succeeding in their own separate spheres.

In 2008 Obama received his “scholarship” from Wall Street in the form of significant campaign financing. In fact, he received more help than did John McCain, a situation that changed dramatically when he ran against Romney. Obama may have saved Wall Street from its excesses but, once he began pushing for meaningful banking regulation, they turned on him. It’s as though they initially saw him as a promising junior executive but regarded him as an upstart once he asserted himself.

In some ways, Wall Street is similar to the white establishment in the Invisible Man chapter. As long as IM knows his place, they don’t have a problem with him. However, at one point IM accidentally uses the word that was central to Obama’s inauguration speech this past week:

I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. I coughed, wanting to stop and go to one of the tall brass, sand-filled spittoons to relieve myself, but a few of the men, especially the superintendent, were listening and I was afraid. So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued. (What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!) I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered. Nor was that all. Whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it. I used the phrase “social responsibility” and they yelled:
“What’s that word you say, boy?”

“Social responsibility,” I said.

“What?”

“Social…”

“Louder.”

“… responsibility.”

“More!”

“Respon-“

“Repeat!”

“-sibility.”

The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.

“Social…”

“What?” they yelled.

“… equality-“

The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at me. But I did not understand.

A small dry mustached man in the front row blared out, “Say that slowly, son!”

“What, sir?”

“What you just said!”

“Social responsibility, sir,” I said.

“You weren’t being smart, were you, boy?” he said, not unkindly.

“No, sir!”

“You sure that about ‘equality’ was a mistake?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” I said. “I was swallowing blood.”

“Well you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your places at all times. All right, now, go on with your speech.”

I was afraid. I wanted to leave but I wanted also to speak and I was afraid they’d snatch me down.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, beginning where I had left off, and having them ignore me as before.

Yet when I finished there was a thunderous applause.

Unlike Obama, IM is not yet ready to insist on “equality” but thinks that he can make it in an unequal world governed by white rules. He doesn’t learn otherwise until he goes off to college and experiences a disaster.

Chosen to escort a wealthy benefactor around the school, he fails to realize how careful he must be in dealing with rich white men. The college’s president is so appalled at his ignorance–it could upset the delicate detente he has worked out with the white community–that he kicks IM out of the college and gives him a poison reference letter.

It is only when a sympathetic job employer shows him the letter that IM realizes that he’s been conned.

Throughout his first two and a half years, Obama couldn’t understand why the GOP kept pretending to play along with him, only to sabotage his proposals—even when they were ideas initially forwarded by Republicans. Only gradually did he realize the depth of GOP obstructionism, set in motion (we learned in recent months) by a meeting of Republican leaders on the day of his inauguration where they vowed to resist him every step of the way. Their plan resembled the one revealed in the college president’s “recommendation” letter:

. . .it is to the best interests of the college that this young man have no knowledge of the finality of his expulsion. For it is indeed his hope to return here to his classes in the fall. However it is to the best interests of the great work which we are dedicated to perform, that he continue undisturbed in these vain hopes while remaining as far as possible from our midst.

This is a more eloquent version of the dream insight IM gets after receiving the scholarship. It is an insight that he doesn’t understand until after he learns that he has been strung along:

To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.

The disastrous summer of 2011 may have been the moment when Obama fully realized the game that the GOP was playing. Perhaps that’s when the n____ boy stopped  running with vain illusions of a postpartisan America and started facing up to political reality.

Fortunately, Obama appears to have learned his lesson. His assertive inaugural is proof.

 

Added note: Interestingly, other parts of Invisible Man fit Obama less well. He has never become a tool of the movement left (the Brotherhood), nor has he been attracted by black rage (Ras the Destroyer). He hasn’t incited much black antagonism from Brockway types (establishment blacks who feel threatened by him), nor has he raised the ire of lower class blacks, which IM experiences in the boxing rink.  Also unlike IM, Obama did not retreat into a hole but sought out the most powerful position in the land. Of course, he’s not living in Ellison’s 1951 America and so has more opportunities.

There is one figure that Obama has affinities with, however. The president is like the enigmatic Rinehart, who can change identities as the occasion demands. Rinehart shifts between pimp, bookie, lover, and reverend, whereas Obama early in his presidency was called, by different pundits, the first Jewish president, the first gay president, the first woman president, the first Asian-American president, and the first Hispanic president. A lot of this has to do with his mixed race and his ability to move between different registers, including language registers. His malleability has proved an indispensable political tool.

Other posts applying Invisible Man to Barack Obama

 Trapped in Race Narratives

Why Obama Hatred? Ask Ellison, Baldwin

Ellison’s Invisible Man, Always Relevant

Ellison and Obama’s Racial Tightrope Walk

Invisible Obama, Point of Projection

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