“This is terrible,” a minister once yelled at British PM Harold Wilson. “We’re not doing anything at all. We’re in the messy middle-of-the-road!”

Wilson looked at him balefully.

“But the messy middle-of-the-road is where I feel right at home.”

Is Obama a new Harold Wilson? Someone who wants things to be messy, amorphous, undefined — so that in the blood and the muddle he can get a few modest things done? You would be tempted to think so, given his demeanour over the last few months.

The US liberal blogosphere seem to be united in their disappointment at the loss of the noble speechifying guy who inspired a generation to etc. For a snapshot, read The Huffington Post where there are ohhhhhh 30 or so articles like that.

But let’s face it, people asking for the real Obama to step out are getting it wrong. This is the real Obama, policy wonk, incrementalist, cautious leader, more willing to bear the frustrations of his supporters, than put a foot wrong.

The other Obama, the “we are the people we have been waiting for, and our time is now” — the old civil rights riff that still sends a shiver up my spine — that guy was just brought out for the special occasions of the primaries. He’ll come out again, when he’s really needed, but sparingly.

Obama, in his community organising career, was initially wary of oratory (as were all the people trained in the Saul Alinsky tradition) because oratory is intoxicating, makes you feel you’ve done something just by hearing it. The community organiser’s art is to get people to organise themselves to get the things they always wanted, but were too defeated and beaten down to get without help.

Since his presidency is based on the premise that the whole of the US is the equivalent of a basket case neighbourhood, requiring community organising on a national scale, he has largely left the big oratory, and the “hope” and “change” stuff out. Lowered expectations of him, raised people’s expectations of themselves, that’s the theory anyway.

The Nobel Peace Prize malarkey blew that out of the water. As Alexander Cockburn pointed out in Counterpunch, the prize may have been more deserved than most thought — the bauble has gone to so many imperialists, often conducting multiple wars at the time they were handed it, that it seems to be a medal for mayhem. Some people huff and puff at Yasser Arafat getting the gong, though he wasn’t the first Middle-East terrorist to be so honoured (Menachem Begin was).

Tom Lehrer famously remarked that he gave up satire the day that Henry Kissinger was ignobled. None of these guys really come close to Theodore Roosevelt, who was running a race war in the Philippines, which would leave more than a million dead in a mad extension of the “white man’s burden”.

So now we’re reminded of the Obama that inspired so many. Fair enough too. The prize is a little ridiculous, but let’s face it, the Norwegian Nobel committee is, as Michael Moore notes, giving it to America, for rejoining the sane world.

Yet it comes at the very moment Obama kinda wants to keep his head down, so that he can quietly, methodically, round up the numbers for a health care plan with a public option, and get it through Congress. Meanwhile he sneaks in a little thing about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians in the military.

The strategy in both cases is that of the anti-Clinton. Bill C, for all his vaunted political genius, made the DADT policy his first major cause in 1993 — immediately pissing off large social conservative sections of the Democrat base, and looking like an identity politics President. Then Hillary C made the health care reform a full-on charge — which got shot to pieces, and ushered in 12 years of Republican control of Congress.

Obama is playing judo, giving his enemies no chance to start anew the culture wars on matters — like healthcare — that are social and economic in nature.

Whether or not that’s a good idea — and I suspect that leading from the front might have been a better strategy — he’s not being allowed to do it. For one reason.

He’s black.

The idea of a boring, procedural, President, working by way of experts and committees, through allies in Congress, is simply something that a black President is not allowed to be. A whole series of cultural expectations attach, arising from both the recent history of black politics — the civil rights movement, where oratory was kinda required — and the spiritual and redemptive nature of US culture in general, and southern black culture in particular.

It was not always thus. In fact Obama is more in the mode of an early generation of black leaders like Booker T Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, willing to take on the “slow drilling through hard timber” of starting schools, colleges, an economic base etc, and deliberately project an image of modesty and ordinariness.

Obama undoubtedly adopted this in the latter half of the 08 campaign — desperate to get miles away from the slot many people would be all too willing to put a black politician, that of angry, shouty man. For Jesse Jackson and others, that approach had been necessary to secure a base, and project on the national stage. But it was also the stuff of nightmares for millions of whites in the decayed and distrustful post-60s cities of the North.

That a whole section of such whites would vote for Obama was a measure both of social progress — and of desperation at the end of the Bush era (Joe Biden’s one function as VP candidate was to go around and reassure wavering groups that “this guy’s one of us”). But Obama knows that now Bush is gone, dissatisfaction with the compromises he must make will loosen that alliance afresh. So he has to do one big thing.

He has to make people forget he’s black.

That, when you think about, is the necessary second part of the huge chain of events that began with his election. That occurrence — which is still, when one occasionally stops to think about it, extraordinary — has to be subsumed into a more general process, one where you can kvetch and bitch about the President and what’s he doing or failing to … and actually forget he’s black.

Hence the alacrity of the White House (there’s a help) in dismissing Carter’s suggestion that the crazed tenor of the opposition to the Prez was because he was black. Of course it was, but that was only a small and vocal minority of saddos.

Most white Americans aren’t actively racialist or racist. But they are caught within a society increasingly atomised, isolated — and in the industrial northern states Obama has to win in ’12 (Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania) coming out of decades of soft-segregation, in neighbourhoods, local unions, schools and, well, life. For many a bunch of even third-generation Polish-Americans in Allentown to vote for the “schwartzer” was a stretch in ’08, and will remain so in ’12.

Quite aside from the legislative exigencies, Obama is steering to the middle of the road for political reasons. He wants the fight to be about something other than him. And whatever else was stuffing up, and ignoring the loud but lunatic birthers and Obamahitler types, he was making some progress.

And then came the call from Oslo … Black man’s burden?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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