Many of the Republican presidential hopefuls should be able to beat President Obama in 2012. This president has a track record now and, thus, many vulnerabilities. If he is not our “worst president,” as Donald Trump would have it, his sweeping domestic initiatives—especially his stimulus package and health-care reform—were so jerry-built and high-handed that they generated a virtual revolution in America’s normally subdued middle class.
The president’s success in having Osama bin Laden killed is an exception to a pattern of excruciatingly humble and hesitant leadership abroad. Mr. Obama has been deeply ambivalent about the application of American power, as if a shameful “neocolonialism” attends every U.S. action in the world. In Libya he seems actually to want American power to diminish altogether.
And yet Republicans everywhere ask, “Who do we have to beat him?” In head-to-head matchups, Mr. Obama beats all of the Republican hopefuls in most polls.
The problem Mr. Obama poses for Republicans is that there has always been a disconnect between his actual performance and his appeal. If Hurricane Katrina irretrievably stained George W. Bush, the BP oil spill left no lasting mark on this president. Mr. Obama’s utter confusion in the face of the “Arab spring” has nudged his job-approval numbers down, but not his likability numbers, which Gallup has at a respectable 47.6%. In the mainstream media there has been a willingness to forgive this president his mistakes, to see him as an innocent in an impossible world. Why?
There have really always been two Barack Obamas: the mortal man and the cultural icon. If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling.
What gives Mr. Obama a cultural charisma that most Republicans cannot have? First, he represents a truly inspiring American exceptionalism: He is the first black in the entire history of Western civilization to lead a Western nation—and the most powerful nation in the world at that. And so not only is he the most powerful black man in recorded history, but he reached this apex only through the good offices of the great American democracy.
There is a powerful racial impressionism that works against today’s field of Republican candidates. This is the impressionism that framed Sen. John McCain in 2008 as a political and cultural redundancy—yet another older white male presuming to lead the nation.
The point is that anyone who runs against Mr. Obama will be seen through the filter of this racial impressionism, in which white skin is redundant and dark skin is fresh and exceptional. This is the new cultural charisma that the president has introduced into American politics.