In his profound book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, Shelby Steele postulates that blacks who have successfully acquired power in America have done so primarily by adopting one of two masks: either they position themselves as “bargainers” who essentially promise whites not to make them feel guilty in exchange for a piece of power, or they present themselves as “challengers” who extract power by charging whites with guilt.
Steele argues that Obama has chosen the bargainer path and pursued it well.
The key to a bargainer is that the authentic person must be kept hidden behind the mask for fear of destroying the mask. Blacks have successfully used the bargainer to great advantage in fields such as sports and entertainment as these areas lend themselves to keeping the authentic person out of the camera’s eyes. Politics (and especially presidential politics) however, are predicated on a public set on exposing every detail of one’s history. Steele predicted that it would be extremely difficult for Obama to keep the bargainer mask intact throughout the election.
Steele had generally been correct. The exposure of various relationships (Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko to name a few) has raised the question “Who is this guy, really?” to one of the most important in the campaign. Media investigations have presented significant challenges to Obama’s image, drawing into question many aspects of his character, history, and beliefs — all of which would challenge the carefully produced image he has sold. Yet, an audience of adoring followers has easily swallowed and digested campaign responses that not only do not answer the question but seem to deliberately obfuscate or distort the reality presented. It is not only Obama, but the entire fan base that is invested in insuring that the bargainer mask stays put.
If the Steele analysis has merit, it must take into account the critical maneuver the Obama campaign has pulled off. It is not simply that Obama has brought the mask to the political arena and found a way to keep it on. Additionally, he has changed the arena itself to resemble those in which the mask is readily accepted. In order to insure that the bargainer mask stays fixed, Obama has made every effort to turn the presidential election into those endeavors in which whites readily accept the mask — sports and entertainment.
During the convention, he made all the moves of a bargainer. Having secured the black vote, he turned his attention to the white audience. Everything was geared to say to whites, “You need not fear me.” His family had been brought out days before with a speech from Michelle that said “We are just like you.” Equally significant, while his primary campaign seemed to say that “half-white, half-black” meant all black, Obama now was leaning more towards all white. Throughout the convention, we heard of Obama’s white mother and white grandparents whereas their mention was previously limited to a single reference to his grandmother’s fearing black men. Obama’s black father and step-father were virtually scrubbed out of the presentation.
Nothing, however, demonstrated the critical move better than Obama’s Thursday night acceptance speech. Taking place in a stadium filled with about 80,000 screaming fans, the spectacle replicated a sporting event and viewership exceeded the opening night of the Olympic Games.
The event was positioned much like a Super Bowl with a week of pregame activities that used to be called a convention. The pundit discussions included tiresome questions of what he must do, much as sports announcers would examine the challenge of a big game or fight. Experts would opine that he must address this point while demonstrating that point, much as Olympic gymnastics analysts would stress that an upcoming performance needs to include this move or that. And when the speech concluded, out came the judges with their scorecards: 9.8, 9.5, 9.6 etc. A not uncommon comment was “He nailed it” as if he pulled off a fine dismount from the parallel bars.
In addition to the sports aspect, Obama acted like a seasoned entertainer. His stride, posture, and positioning of the teleprompter to project majesty served to amplify all that the Britney-like stage set out to produce. His appearance, impeccably thin like a rat-packer, screams cool. His swagger showed the finger-snapping confidence of a Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Sammy Davis Jr. He knows how to grab, hold, move and squeeze an audience like very few entertainment masters. By the end of the evening, there was no greater star on the planet. This was confirmed by Oprah, perhaps the nation’s prior greatest star.
What cements the move is Obama’s constant attempt to act as if he has already achieved his goal. Early on, Obama used phrases such as “When I am President…” The listener hears “I am President” and, as it is repeated, starts to treat it as if already true. His Middle East and European tours, complete with speeches for the masses and photo ops with world leaders were equally vital to Obama’s use of the “as if” technique.
What Obama and his campaign have accomplished is miraculous. The candidate remains insulated from true questioning about his vague, controversial, and reconstructed past. More significantly, his endless use of slogans — “Change,” “Yes We Can,” “More of the Same,” “Four More Years,” — appropriately suited for his devotees, keeps the details and practicality of his plans safely locked away. Like the wizard behind the curtain, Obama has flicked all focus off of him and onto a Bush-McCain analogy that is mostly fictitious.
Where, as Steele would postulate, the challenge would be to keep the bargainer mask affixed while treading through dangerous new territory, Obama has transformed the territory into the familiar; one in which the mask has been fully accepted. And he has been able to get everyone else to participate so that not only his admirers but the media as well cooperates in the alchemy.
The scrutiny is no longer over whether the mask is appropriately affixed but over how well the mask is utilized. Whether or not presidential, that is a masterful accomplishment. Whereas Steele had him trapped by the limits of his mask, Obama, in Houdini-like fashion, seems to have found a way to escape with mask fully intact. At least for now. Steele is rarely wrong.