One vast, towering reason for Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in 2008 was the widespread expectation that an articulate and half-black chief executive would help the country overcome at long last its racial anxieties.
He'd speak about race with far-seeing eye and reasonable demeanor. He'd see all sides of the matter. He'd guide with confidence -- as he sought to do in Selma the other day, reminding Americans that "the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much." Etc. -- words and more words, glistening for a minute or two in the sunlight, then just lying there.
So it goes.
No recent president has so frittered away the presidency's moral authority -- on race, on foreign affairs, on democracy, you name it -- as has Barack Obama.
No recent president has rendered himself so unlistenable, so omittable from adult discussion aimed at the resolution of genuine problems.
This is not to say our 45th president has no credibility on anything. It's to say he preserves these days possibly one-tenth of the credibility the media and his followers happily assigned him in advance of his ascent to the presidency, when the wonderfulness of the Obama intellect was a general theme of campaign coverage.
You can't be sure when to take Barack Obama seriously, howsoever seriously his brow appears to knit with concern on significant occasions. It's the legacy of the "red line" on Syrian chemical weapons, which turned out, on closer, inspection to be indistinguishable from the dust around it. It's the legacy of you-can-keep-your-health-insurance-if-you-like-it.
It's the legacy of the president's non-stop lectures about Republican refusal to negotiate with a White House that scorns (and regularly shows that it scorns) the whole idea of giving away anything it wants. It's the legacy, more recently, of the Keystone pipeline bill on premises that flatly contradict fact -- e.g., the assertion that Keystone is all about using the United States as a transit point for Canadian oil, when, in fact, an estimated 70 percent of the oil would be refined for U.S. consumption.
There's a pattern here: The president, with eyes turned toward his ramshackle constituency of feminist leaders, African-American spokesmen, "green" billionaires and voters who believe -- falsely -- that Wall Street runs the American show, coaxes and caters and coddles. Non-members of the coalition -- conservatives, for instance -- could be attending a Mongolian mahjong tournament for any attention their arguments receive from our great Reconciler in Chief. And so pass numerous moments for the adult conversation so many voters in 2008 thought would succeed the rhetorical flummery (as they saw it) that issued from George W. Bush's mouth.
Barack Obama must be laden with serious thoughts of one kind and another. You just can't tell which thoughts, the way he whips up rhetorical ice cream sundaes for the Obama hard core.
He's preaching, at Selma, to our minds and hearts and souls? He's working to assuage passions? To reconcile the keepers of order -- policemen -- with those for whom their brotherhood keeps order? He aims at reconciliation and respect? Liberty and justice and human dignity?
It would be nice to suppose so. It would be possible to suppose so, had not presidential misrepresentation after presidential misrepresentation fouled the climate for national conversation. You don't converse very constructively under the oversight of a moral arbiter whose moral standing could -- let us say -- do with some rehabilitation, never mind how essential the need for policies that fuse rather than further pry apart racial groupings with a presumable joint interest in peace and progress in place of conflict.
The president self-designated to play the role of wise man and reconciler gives a listenable speech when he wants to, only not such a speech as many these days take seriously, having worn themselves out in the search for coherence, not to mention wisdom, in the public musings of Barack Obama.