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Demonizing Obama and the Politics of “Morality”

Clarence B. Jones – Scholar in Residence, Martin Luther King, Jr.  Research and Education Institute at Stanford University Posted: 02/15/2012 12:34 pm

In previous blogs I have said that the 2012 presidential election may be the most important one in our country since the elections of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. in 1932. Entitled “The Moral Challenge of ‘Shared Sacrifice’ to Income Inequality in the Second Decade of the 21st Century,” I wrote, “It will be a referendum on our values, priorities, and our view on the use and limits of federal power to achieve or defeat national economic, political and social goals.”

In connection with the submission of his new budget on February 13th, the president echoed a similar sentiment:

“The defining issue of our time is… we’ve got a choice: We can settle for a country where a few people do really, really well, and everybody else struggles to get by. Or we can restore an economy where everybody else gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same rules — from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street. That’s the America we believe in.”

So, what is the response from the Republicans in Congress and the Wall Street Journal? Their view is expressed in a lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “The Amazing Obama Budget”:

“With the abracadabra of a tax increase on the wealthy and defense spending cuts that will never materialize, the White House asserts that in President Obama’s second term revenues will soar, outlays will fall, and 1.3 trillion annual deficits will be cutting half like lady in the box on stage. All voters need do is suspend for another nine months. And ignore the first four years.”

Budgets and their “numbers” are the language used to express social and economic policy. President Obama knows this. That’s why he framed the issues and choices in non-numerical language so that everyone in the country will know clearly what “the defining issue” and choices are, in real time, we must confront today.

While Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin is presented as “a reasoned response” to President Obama’s budget proposal , the Senate and House Republican leadership and candidates campaigning in the Republican party primaries seek to politically demonize the president as “a socialist,” “not one of us,” etc.

Andrew Sullivan published the comments of a reader of his:

“The right is projecting its shadow on to Obama. The same qualities that make him a saint to the left make him the devil to the right — he is easy to project onto… That is why he is the out of control spender when they sat on their hands through all of Bush’s malfeasance. That is why his talking to schoolchildren is dangerous when our government wiretapping its citizens wasn’t. That is why saving the financial system from years of Republican regulation is taking away our future. The more evil revealed about the right’s excesses on torture, or wars of choice, or nearly destroying the economy, the more evil Obama will look in their eyes, as they cannot tolerate owning responsibility, because in their own minds they are only good.”

Some of us may have underestimated the “birther movement” — those people who seriously believe that Obama was not born a U.S. citizen within the continental territories of the United States. They have cast Obama as a person who is foreign to the American experience. This (and here I differ from many people) is simply the insidious virus of white racism, often laying dormant, that has infected the good judgment of otherwise fair-minded and decent white people who hold conservative views different than Obama.

We have also witnessed legitimate religious concerns wrapped in a mantle of spurious if not hypocritical political “morality.” I absolutely agree that the power of government should not be used to coerce Catholic institutions or Catholic affiliate organizations to engage in behavior that contravenes their religious beliefs. However, does requiring insurance companies to offer the availability contraceptives under the new Affordable Health Care Act amount to the exercise of coercive governmental power in violation of a Catholic institution or Catholic affiliated institutions freedom of religion under our Constitution?

Or, is the Catholic Church seeking to get the government to enforce its prohibition against the use of contraceptives that it is unable itself to prevent its parishioners from using? It appears that this is really what is at the heart of the dispute and controversy between the White House, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sibelius, and the official leadership of the Catholic Church in America. If so, this is ersatz “morality,” undermining the legitimate genuine concern about government’s infringement of one’s religious beliefs.

In terms of the coming presidential election, perhaps those who support Obama should be more concerned about what appears to be a significant shift in the voter group demographics of those who voted for Obama in 2008. In an article by Mark McKinnon, in The Daily Beast, he asks the question: Has the President Lost His Obama Generation?

“With the president’s promises of change unfulfilled, nearly 50 percent of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year were college students — and in a recent poll, millennials endorsed the economic philosophies of conservatism…Some 10,500 people attended the annual CPAC convention this year; close to 50 percent were college students. The year before President Obama was elected, 1,500 students attended. This year 5,000 participated, an increase of 233 percent in five years. The students came from all over the country, from small liberal arts colleges, religious-based schools, and major state universities to “elite” institutions like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and more.”

The question that only the presidential election of 2012 will answer is whether the young people at CPAC and those comprising Occupy Wall Street will vote to re-elect President Obama or decide to chose whomever becomes the Republican nominee? In either event, the president’s observation recited at the beginning of this blog is on the money.

Last week I visited Detroit, Michigan to participate in the “Rebirth of Detroit” activities surrounding the commemoration of the memory and work of Detroit’s local rapper J. Dilla and the work of the J. Dilla Foundation to improve the community of Detroit. Part of the commemoration was a concert at the Fillmore Theatre honoring J. Dilla. His mother was there to accept tributes in honor of her son.

The audience of white and African-American people, men and women, principally those who perform and listen to rap music, filled the Fillmore Theatre to capacity.

When I was introduced to speak to them from the stage about the unique ability of rap music and rap artists to communicate the relevant and urgent issues affecting not only the quality of life in Detroit but in several urban communities throughout America my remarks were greeted with attentive enthusiasm and applause. The applause was even greater when I spoke about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence and the pursuit of excellence to be the very best that we can be.

This Fillmore Theatre is the white rap music star Eminem’s community of celebrated music in Detroit. The black and white mosaic of young people in the audience, if a representative segment or mirror of urban youth today, we have reason to be hopeful, and less pessimistic about some of the violence and adverse pathologies that plague the health and well being of many communities in our nation.

The Super Bowl commercial about the rebirth of Detroit — “Halftime in America,” powerfully described by Clint Eastwood — appears to be the reality of the Detroit I witnessed among young people at the Fillmore. They were celebrating their music and their community’s legacy and pride of the artist, J. Dilla.

In Detroit and maybe throughout America we are indeed at “halftime”; and that “the defining issue of our time is… we’ve got a choice: We can settle for a country where a few people do really, really well, and everybody else struggles to get by,” as President Obama said this week.

Demonizing Obama and playing the politics of contrived morality is not responsive to the critical issues affecting our country in 2012 and the immediate years thereafter. The black and white audience of young people at the Fillmore Theatre in Detroit who love and perform rap music give us cause for hope and challenges us to believe again.

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