So says Shelby Steele in today’s WSJ. His argument stretches back to his thesis from the election (and the title of his book on the subject) that Barack Obama is a "bound man"--especially on the question of identity politics. According to Steele, Obama claims to be and seems to seek to be "post-racial" in a kind of "bargaining" with whites whereby their embracing him absolves them of any share of guilt in America’s racist past. But Obama also cannot escape the political truth that much of his most loyal support comes from groups that also support exactly the kind of identity politics touted by Sotomayor.
If Obama was truly engaged in a kind of wise and statesmanlike tying together of these seemingly incompatible extremes for the purpose of actually arriving at something that is akin to a post-racial America, it would seem that he would have to point to something like a third way. Forget, for a moment, what the substance of that third way would be (for I suspect he doesn’t really know the answer to that himself). How would he point the way? He would have to affirm the legitimate grievances on both sides--the weariness with the guilt on the one hand, and the injured feelings and actual harm felt on the other. And, indeed, his speeches are full of "on the one hands" and "on the other hands" and rhetoric about "false choices" that, he argues, pit us against each other when there’s no need. We can all get along . . . but, for now, it seems we’ll have to do it through him. Even so, Obama can only keep this up, or seem to keep this up, in his speeches. When it comes to the reality test, the problem is that his balancing act doesn’t translate well into action. He’s just alternating the placating right now--and so running in place. Today he scratches the backs of the advocates of identity politics and winks at concerned whites . . . it’s o.k., she’s not really as bad as she seems. After all, she’s got my approval and look at who says she’s a racist . . . Newt Gingrich. Tomorrow, he will do a gimme to the other side, throw another hard-edged radical under the bus, and wink at the equally radical but less firm-footed. And this will work . . . for now.
But I begin to wonder how long this will last. Already, the cracks in his support on the left are beginning to widen. And the Sotomayor hearings may provide ample opportunity (if not stupidly handled) for conservatives to finally make a case against identity politics that accepts (and fairly explains) the blame conservatives have shared with liberals in escalating racial tension for political gain. The third way is to tell the truth about our history and our principles and make a solid case for embracing both. Barack Obama stops short in both instances and enjoys the fruits of playing this deceptive game.