First of all, let me say that I would have been happy to vote for Obama regardless of his race. And I suspect that there are many out there who would have been happy to vote against Obama regardless of his race. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that his race isn't a factor in how he is perceived.
It's weird to me that Obama, who is half Caucasian, is always referred to as "black;" but, then, Tiger Woods is always referred to as "black" rather than "Cambodian," so I guess any percentage black still trumps all in the eyes of both blacks and whites. But what is odder yet is that the world's most famous black man seems to be turning into the world's most famous White Whale.
Now, by the nature of the job, the President of the United States can't help but be something of a symbol. But in Obama's case his symbolic capacity seems limitless; people project a bewildering array of attributes and motives on to him. At first this seemed simple enough: the liberals saw him as a symbol of hope and progress, and the far right saw him as a symbol of creeping socialism and of the first days of The Last Days.
I find it exceedingly peculiar that Obama is perceived by the right as being either anti-Christian or even Muslim, while the left seems to overlook his deeply Christian religious history. Obama has far more Christian credentials--and fundamentalist Christian credentials at that--than a poseur like George W. Bush. But I guess it isn't really that odd in America: people with no combat experience or real military service, like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, are seen as "tough guys," while real combat heroes, like John Kerry or George Bush, Sr., are seen as "wimps." In light of all that, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by Obama's White Whale status.
But the projections onto Obama seem to be at a whole new level of weirdness. I'll give just three examples.
1) Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, speaking to a crowd in Manhattan, described the Obama administration's push for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem as an effort to "undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel," and on Fox News (where else?) said, "I believe the Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations." Since every US adminstration I can recall has pressured Israel on the settlements issue, it's hard for me to understand this level of hysteria over something that is merely business as usual...except in the context of Obama as Symbol. Of something.
2) Listening to the radio yesterday, in the aftermath of the riots in Greece, a reporter was interviewing a young, angry business student who was criticizing the IMF's bailout terms. In broken English, which I won't attempt to render here, he said, "It's all because Obama wants to destroy the Euro so he can have a stronger dollar!"
Ill ignore the raw stupidity of the conjecture that the US is pushing for a stronger dollar at the time that we're trying to increase exports and cut imports. What's striking about this idea is that it's conceived of as Obama's doing. I've heard all manner of world-domination-via-the-IMF accusations hurled at the IMF and at perfidious American plutocrats or the shady New World Order, but I can't recall hearing anyone attribute US strategies vis-a-vis exchange-rate policy to the President personally. (I suppose this is something of a backhanded tribute to Obama. No one would ever have accused his predecessor of formulating international economic policy.)
3) Last week I was walking in downtown San Francisco and a young man with a clipboard accosted me on the sidewalk. At first glance he looked like a Greenpeace fundraiser, but he opened by saying, "Do you want to help save the US Space Program?"
Still walking, I offered that I had nothing against the US Space Program, but that I was on my way to an appointment.
He responded by shouting, "If you want to save the US Space Program, the first question we need to answer is: Where was Barack Obama really born?"
That makes my Top Ten Non Sequitur List--unless the young man was about to argue that Obama was in fact born on another planet and wanted to discourage space exploration for fear it might reveal his extraterrestrial origins. (That wouldn't be a non sequitur. Insane, maybe, but a logical train of deranged thought.) I almost regret not stopping to hear out his crackpot reasoning, but that would have violated one of the key commandments of living in California (#7: Never stop to talk to someone on the street in the Bay Area, even if you have to walk out into traffic to avoid them).
Critics have argued for decades now about the meaning of the White Whale, but, like any good symbol, Moby-Dick remains always present yet elusive. As for myself, I hope that I can some day introduce into one of my stories a symbol as powerful and yet open to interpretation as our first Black President.