Tags: #SOTU

That's My President

Obama gives a rousing State of the Union. But amid the promises, there are clues about whose lives really matter in the long run. And that news isn't good.
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As President Obama’s State of the Union began to dominate the news cycle yesterday, if you were looking for it you could still see signs of one of the more illuminating stories of last week—a story that, while set in France, told us more about the state of the U.S. than the president’s speech would: The mayor of the city of Paris is looking into suing FOX News.

In case you missed it, last week, while discussing the recent terrorist acts in Paris, Steve Emerson, a guest “terrorism expert” on FOX, told Judge Jeanine Pirro on air that there were parts of Paris that were “No-Go” zones, dominated entirely by Muslims, the French version of the mythic “Sharia Law” zones FOX frequently likes to say exist inside the U.S.

The claim was instantly the subject of much mockery from France’s satirical news program Le Petit Journal, which then had reporters imitating FOX reporters visiting the alleged zones, and showed French citizens going about their lives. Emerson quickly apologized—he had made similar claims about Britain, suggesting Birmingham was a ‘totally Muslim city’, where he was similarly mocked—and FOX tried to claim it was only Emerson at fault, but when Le Petit Journal proved, Jon Stewart–style, that many of the network’s anchors were repeating the claim, FOX issued unprecedented apologies, even from Pirro, who apologized for not correcting him. Why has FOX apologized so extensively? The suit the city of Paris is likely to pursue, if successful, would be something that could seriously damage the ability of News Corp to operate in France and more widely, in Europe. Their brand of disinformation doesn’t export well—not yet—and the provincial kind of attitudes and prejudice that is the core of their brand may have met its match.

If anyone had cause to sue FOX inside the U.S., it is perhaps President Obama, who delivered a speech that was notable for its focus on presenting an argument that would almost certainly fail, for an economic agenda he has no power to enact. He underlined paid sick leave, maternity leave, equal pay, raising the minimum wage. He used the term "Middle-Class Economics" to describe the wider picture he painted, which was notable for both being popular with Americans—something he underlined, even—and entirely unpopular with the elected body before him. The speech went off-course briefly at the beginning, when Obama delivered a zinger about having won two elections. He was greeted in the moments following his speech with some of the characteristic excitement that follows his brief flashes of charisma.

“That’s my president,” I saw so many people post in the immediate aftermath, as my Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr became repeat postings of his zinger about having won two elections. Like many, I loved this particular vine:

Even as I also know, well, how sad it is, in a way, as the news comes that the Department of Justice will file no charges against Darren Wilson, and clear him in the death of Michael Brown.

How little it takes for us to fall for him again, I thought.

If George W. Bush was the abusive husband as president, the drunk driver asleep at the wheel who wouldn’t let you out of the car, then Obama is the bad boyfriend. The charmer who promises annually to close Guantánamo, tax the rich, push for mandatory sick leave, and raise the minimum wage. You smile at him but out of the corner of your eye you see him winking at the House Republicans about the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he hopes to pass in secret and without debate, and which, if passed, will do more than make corporations people—they will be able to be treated as sovereign states, equal to governments.  And which conceivably bring into being a situation that would allow FOX to sue the city of Paris, and the government of France, if their libel laws somehow interfered with FOX’s ability to make a profit.

The Trans Pacific Partnership would actually undermine almost every policy initiative in his speech. His support for it even suggests he didn't mean anything he said that night, at all.

I have read many of these assessments of the president’s speech and the ones that I’m asked to side with politically speak again of the president presiding over the success of his long game. And I have over the years come to be increasingly askance at the long-game idea of President Obama, as someone who had the right ideas for all of us collectively. This is the idea that I just had to be patient while he got to where he was going with conservatives. I’m asked to believe his speechwriter took out the reference to #Blacklivesmatter. We live at a time when, as Roxane Gay put it, the use of a term is progress.

Yes, I’m happy to have a president who can say the word Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender. I’d be happier with one who could also underline the importance of a woman’s right to choose. In the meantime, this last year of his presidency keeps having something of the feeling of fate. Maybe it’s the Selma Oscar snub happening on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or the Magical Black Man study appearing during the summer of Michael Brown’s killing, and the protests that followed. More than one observer has noted the way the Magical Black Man myth affects us as regards President Obama, and as we think again on the subject of justice for Michael Brown, we may want to bring this up again.

It is not President Obama’s fault that he has the Congress he has before him—that is on us. Well, those of us who didn't vote in the midterm elections. I couldn’t even think of what we have now as a political division—the majority of this country supports the progressive policies he mentioned, such as raising the minimum wage, mandatory sick leave, maternity leave, much less abortion, left off of last night's list. But our country’s electoral politics are designed to protect us from the majority, and the Senate, perhaps, most of all. What you see when you look at the U.S. isn’t a country divided against itself, it’s a country in which a very small group of people are paying to use another, slightly larger group of people to control many people, and to force a generation to live, against its will, in a country with no access to the levers of power. We have to take him as he is, and not project what we want him to be onto him.

What bothers me then isn’t that the Republicans he faces will return to standing outside saying that it is raining when it is not raining, or sunny when it is not sunny, and getting millions of dollars to do it. I fear the increasing illegalization of protest in a country that is supposed to allow protest as part of its democratic functioning. I fear the illegalization of whistle-blowing in a country that is supposed to be founded on ideas of fairness. I fear the militarization of a police force that increasingly treats the public like the enemy, instead of the people it is supposed to protect. I fear the legitimization in the mind of the public of all of this.

The long game I see is the finalization of the terms under which America becomes more, not less, of an apartheid state. A country that is very close to being the next destination for that boat that delivers abortions to women in countries where it is illegal. I used to feel like I was living in a Margaret Atwood novel that was coming true. I think instead it is one by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, one in which a black president presides over the final steps in turning the U.S. into the next South Africa. All while saying Mandela was his hero.

This president of ours, he has no reasonable opposition. It is our duty to be his reasonable opposition then. All the way to the end. 

Alexander Chee is the visiting writer at University of Texas–Austin’s New Writers’ Project, and the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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