In his column on Friday in The New York Times, conservative pundit David Brooks offered a surprisingly clear-eyed view of the Obama presidency more than a year into its first term—and the challenges that a rigidly partisan political culture poses for a leader like Obama.


Conservative Republicans denounce Obama as “a big-government liberal,” Brooks writes, who plays “by ruthless, Chicago politics”: “arrogant toward foes, condescending toward allies.” Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, complain that Obama is “an inspiring but overly intellectual leader who has trouble making up his mind and fighting for his positions. He has not defined a clear mission. He has allowed the Republicans to dominate debate.”

Both views, in Brooks’ judgment, are equally mistaken and reveal “more about the information cocoons that partisans live in these days than about Obama himself.” Brooks—a moderate conservative who often has applauded Obama—rejects both extremist positions on the president and describes, instead, “a center-left pragmatic reformer” who advocates for “a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs.”

Two things are striking about this description: that it is evidently accurate; and that one never hears it in the mainstream, alternative or social media. The reason why, Brooks argues, is contextual. He writes of Obama, “He has tried to find this balance in a town without an organized center—in a town in which liberals chair the main committees and small-government conservatives lead the opposition. He has tried to do it in a context maximally inhospitable to his aims.”

We might add, from the special perspective of the Black Press, that Obama has tried to rule from the center as a Black man elected by nearly 100 percent of Black voters. This base started his presidency at a disadvantage and have been hit disproportionately by the severe recession that has hamstrung his presidency thus far. Though the Black community has not wavered much in support of Obama, there has been a predictable cry from some African-American leaders that the first Black president has not done enough to make the disproportionate sufferings of his Black base a priority.

“In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed,” Brooks writes.

“But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.”

African-American literature has a strong tradition of pointing out how Black people—Black men, in particular—have served as screens for the projection of other people’s fantasies and fears. James Baldwin said it best: “The Negro-in-America is a form of insanity that overtakes White men.” It is no surprise, then, that our first Black president would suffer the same fate. Whether one opposes or supports this president—and we support him as much today as ever—it is only fair that we begin our assessment by at least trying to understand him for what he is and the situation in which he operates. In David Brooks’ words: Obama is “the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.”

(Reprinted from the St. Louis American.)

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