The Obama Riddle

Anti-Ideological Leader in an Ideological Age

You wonder if President Obama sometimes finds himself singing a variant on Kermit the Frog's anthem about the burdens of being green: It's not easy being Barack Obama.

This is not simply or even primarily a matter of color, although the president's racial background has been a source of both opportunity and trial. As the first African-American in the White House, he has won an unprecedented level of support in the black community and the good will of enough white Americans to build a national majority.

Yet it's undeniable that racism lurks beneath so many of the preposterously false charges against him -- that this son of Hawaii wasn't really born in the United States, that he is a secret Muslim who "hates America," that he's animated by a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. Within the African-American community, his persistent emphasis on responsible fatherhood, a key theme of his recent commencement address at Morehouse College, is sometimes cast as a way of pandering to white prejudice by hectoring a community to which he owes a large and still unpaid political debt.

That's just the start of it. Even more peculiar is an ongoing confusion over how he thinks and what he stands for.

Some of this is Obama's own doing. He has been a master, as good politicians are, at presenting different sides of himself to different constituencies. In 2008, he was the man who would bring us together by overcoming the deep mistrust between red and blue America and the champion of progressive change, the liberal answer to Ronald Reagan.

Also like most successful politicians, Obama probably saw no contradiction between his two politically useful selves. Since so many of the red/blue divides are based on misunderstandings -- as he said in 2004, blue state folks worship "an awesome God" while red staters care about their gay friends -- getting past them would be easy enough. This, in turn, would open the way to a forward-looking approach to government. In 2012, he thought his re-election would "break the fever" on the right.

No such luck. For Obama's rise was accompanied by a hardening of opinion in the Republican Party fostered by a long-term defection of moderates from the GOP primary electorate, the growing influence of right-wing media in shaping the conservative conversation, and the rise of the tea party and its allies as the most dynamic forces on the right end of politics. This has the effect of tugging the political center, as perceived and presented by the media, to the right, further distorting how Obama is viewed.

In fact, Obama is a tempered sort of progressive who repeatedly annoys his party's left with an incessant pursuit of Republican support for "grand bargains" -- one reason why his health care plan is so state-oriented and gives Republican governors and legislatures so much opportunity to undermine it.

But none of this has helped Obama with his adversaries on the right. They take any news that comes along, notably the IRS' special scrutiny of tea party applications for 501(c)(4) status, and weave it into a pre-existing tale of a power-hungry, ultra-leftist centralizer of authority.

Perhaps the clearest look we've had at the real Obama was his national security speech last Thursday, an honestly agonized and intellectually serious appraisal of the difficulty of striking "the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are."

He left room for all his critics, left and right, to express dissatisfaction: He will pick up the pace of closing Guantanamo, but it will not close immediately; he'll put restrictions on the use of drones, but won't stop using them; he declared an end to the "global war on terror," but pledged to "a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists."

This last bit -- an attempt to displace a sweeping and terribly flawed definition of the anti-terror struggle with a careful, practical but also less stirring depiction of the task ahead -- is a window on the Obama conundrum.

He's an anti-ideological leader in an ideological age, a middle-of-the-road liberal skeptical of the demands placed on a movement leader, a politician often disdainful of the tasks that politics asks him to perform. He wants to invite the nation to reason together with him when nearly half the country thinks his premises and theirs are utterly at odds. Doing so is unlikely to get any easier. But being Barack Obama, he'll keep trying.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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E. J. nails another one perfectly.  One reason why I have been reading Commonweal since the 1950's and put some money into the Commonweal foundation.

Thanks to E. J. and the Commonweal editors currently and over the years.

E. J. nails another one perfectly.  One reason why I have been reading Commonweal since the 1950's and put some money into the Commonweal foundation.

Thanks to E. J. and the Commonweal editors currently and over the years.

Thanks to Mr. Dionne for another clear-headed analysis of President Obama's actions and motivations. I am disappointed to say that sometimes I think Mr. Obama is a better moral leader for our country than many of our religious leaders.

Come on, E. J. -- Obama is "anti-ideological"?  "Middle-of-the-road" doesn't mean lacking in ideology; it means middle-of-the-roadism, the "bi-partisan" approach to maintaining corporate authority and global military supremacy.  Obama represents the corporate professional-managerial elite, still intent on preserving neo-liberal economics and American imperial hegemony, just in kinder, gentler forms -- unless they don't work.  His "intellectually serious appraisal" of the military situation was nothing of the sort; it was a typical Obama performance, wrapping his conflation of self-absorption and imperial arrogance in the rhetoric of sonorous banality.  "See how agonized I am while I slaughter innocent people.  Aren't I a decent fellow?"  Not once did Obama say explicitly that he would desist from using drones.  Nothing in that speech represented anything resembling a step back from the authority claimed in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Remember, too, that this is a President whose administration has been hell on whistle-blowers and downright invasive toward the press (i.e., the AP scandal, the real scandal of this administration).  Anti-ideological?  Please.



I also find the term "anti-ideological" to be insultingly ridiculous. Commandeering the Democratic Party platform to mandate recognition of gay marriage; pushing a healthcare policy which forces religious organizations to pay for abortion and contraception; invoking God's "blessing" on Planned Parenthood and giving PP's Executive Director a role in his inner circle; that is "anti-ideological?" The only reason to insist that President Obama is "anti-ideological" is to reinforce the liberal lie that "ideology" is something religious, conservative, and threatening to progressive secular values. It is ideological to the core, and virulently so. E.J. Dionne should know better.

Hi Alex,

Obama is a middle of the road Democrat.  His "ideology" is that of a middle of the road Democrat.  All national politicians have basic political beliefs and positions, which fit the definition of "ideology."  By "anti-ideological," Dionne points out Obama's openness to compromise with regard to his ideology. Being "anti-ideological" doesn't mean that a politician doesn't have a point of view. What it does mean is that he is prepared to compromise on this point of view, when necessary to pass legislation for the good of the country.

Compare and contrast the Obama Presidency with the GOP leadership, with respect to adhering to a rigid ideology.  Obama clearly favored single payer health care -- a version of Medicare for all.  What we got was a health care system designed by the Heritage Foundation, endorsed by Grassley, Dole, and Gingrich in the 1990s as the "sensible private sector alternative" to HillaryCare, and put into effect in Massachusetts by the 2012 GOP nominee for President. Obama favored massive spending on infrastructure and a robust safety net as a stimulus package in 2009; he ended up supporting a package which included massive tax cuts, originally proposed by the GOP.  He's open to reductions in entitlement spending, as part of a grand bargain on deficit reduction.  The GOP leadership shows no evidence of such flexibility.

Yes, by the standards of 21st Century American politics, President Obama is objectively anti-ideological in his approach to governance.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


Well said Mr Weisenthal.

For an example of how whistle-blowers are treated under President Anti-Ideological, check this out:




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