First, a quiz.
Two presidents. The first left office with the economy shattered, unemployment mushrooming, and the stock market in free fall. He presided over two undeclared and unnecessary wars that were paid for on a credit card. His tenure saw the deficit balloon due to those wars as well as unfunded tax cuts. Finally, his administration failed to respond to one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.
The second had to clean up the mess he inherited from the first. During the tenure of the second president the economy has rebounded, unemployment has been shrinking, and the stock market has recouped its losses, and then some. He ended the two wars, and the deficit has been cut more than in half.
Who is the better president?
The answer should be obvious, but a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed that 33 percent of American voters think the second, Barack Obama, is the worst president since World War II while 28 percent believe the first, George W. Bush, the worst.
Why this disconnect? Part of the explanation is that presidents always look better in the rearview mirror. The second Bush is arguably the worst president in our history, but it’s easy to forget just how disastrous his eight years were.
Part of it is also a result of the incessant beating Obama takes on Fox TV, in conservative newspapers, and in the rightwing blogosphere. Presidents always have received criticism, but it’s magnified in this era of 24/7 communications, the Internet, talk radio, and social media.
It’s not only that the president has opposition, which is always the case and which is normal and healthy in a well-functioning, two-party democracy. Certainly, there are legitimate differences between the president and Republicans over the role of government, how to solve the immigration problem, and health insurance, among other issues, But it’s the intensity of that opposition, bordering on hatred and the irrational, that is different today. It’s reminiscent of the hostility encountered by such presidents as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both of whom, by the way, rank among our greatest presidents.
Some of the opposition to Obama is racially motivated. There remains in our society a minority who are racist. Because even they recognize it’s impolite and impolitic in the 21st century to use overt racial language and images, they often resort to code. Hence, the now discredited (to virtually all but Donald Trump) “birther” controversy, claims the president is a Muslim, and the frequent references to his “socialism,” an allegation anyone with even a scant knowledge of the president and the ideology of socialism would recognize as absurd.
Fortunately, racism is in retreat; it explains the motivations of only a minority of Obama’s opponents. For many more, race is a factor, but a subtle one that operates psychologically within individuals and sociologically within the larger society. It’s manifested as an inability on the part of many to come to grips with our rapidly changing society.
Change takes place at warp speed in our modern era. Technologically, change is obvious. But American society is changing at a dizzying pace. Demographically, we are on the cusp of becoming a nation of minorities, with whites no longer a majority. Religiously, atheism is on the rise, and many others claim to be “religious” but unaffiliated with any denomination. Protestants, who once were ascendant, are becoming a minority.
There is a generation gap that leaves many older Americans uneasy and reminds many of the culture wars of the 1960s. Social issues divide Americans, with the young often more comfortable with same-sex marriage and more liberal on women’s issues and race.
We have not graduated to the post-racial society many predicted with the victory of Barack Obama in 2008, but among the young there is more acceptance of racial intermarriage and a greater tendency to ignore racial divisions and stereotypes.
All of these changes leave many uneasy, especially many older, white voters. For them, Barack Obama is a symbol of what America is becoming and indicative of what they fear they are losing. His mother was white, his father black. He’s young. He’s Ivy League. He's comfortable with the trappings of modern culture.
It’s in this context that the frequently repeated chant of “Take back our country” resonates.
In short, much of the animosity to Barack Obama stems form the discomfort many feel as “the times they are a-changin’”.
* Bob Dylan song, released in 1964.