Shelby Steele, A Bound Man

by Jonathan Chait | May 25, 2011

In December, 2007, Shelby Steele authored the book "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama And Why He Can't Win." By 2010, he was arguing in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page that Obama had damaged himself irreparably:

[T]here is also now a deepening disenchantment with Barack Obama himself. (He has a meager 37% approval rating by the latest Harris poll.) His embarrassed supporters console themselves that their intentions were good; their vote helped make history. But for Mr. Obama himself there is no road back to the charisma and political capital he enjoyed on his inauguration day.

Steele has another op-ed in today's Journal. Without acknowledging any shortcomings in his prior arguments, such as the fact that Obama is indeed the president of the United States, he retreats to a new argument. Beginning with the premise that Obama is a horrible president yet still favored to win reelection, Steele asks why. His explanation:

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. ...
All of this adds up to 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.

That's his secret -- he's black! Naturally, you can't blame Steele for having predicted in 2010 that Obama's charisma was gone forever. How could he possibly have predicted that, come 2011, Obama would still be black?

Steele does essentially nothing to bolster his argument that Obama's race is the secret to his political success. It's a deep-seated belief among conservatives, resting on the (usually unstated) assumption that traditional white-on-black racism no longer exists.

Alan Abramowitz recently examined some actual data, and found that racial resentment correlates strongly with disapproval of Obama. (It also correlates with race, partisanship and ideology, so Abramowitz controlled for those factors and found that racial resentment still correlated highly with views of Obama.)

Now, that data does not actually disprove Steele's claim. It's just as possible that white approval of Obama is being driven by anti-racism as it is that white opposition to Obama is being driven by racial resentment. Obviously, elements of both exist. Figuring out whether Obama's race is a net positive or negative is far from easy.

The conservative belief in Obama's black magic has caused most of them to avoid challenging his character and instead focus their attacks on his policy. Oddly, Steele endorses the opposite approach:

To thwart this, Republicans will have to break through the barrier of political correctness.
Mr. McCain let himself be intimidated by Obama's cultural charisma, threatening to fire any staff member who even used the candidate's middle name. Donald Trump shot to the head of the Republican line by focusing on Mr. Obama as a president, calling him our "worst" president. I carry no brief for Mr. Trump, but his sudden success makes a point: Another kind of charisma redounds to those willing to challenge political correctness—those unwilling to be in thrall to the president's cultural charisma.

Really? Donald Trump's brief star turn, in which he quickly became radioactively unpopular, provides a positive example for Republicans to follow?

Aside from being absurd on its face, and totally inconsistent with the rest of Steele's argument, his call for a Republicans candidate who will follow Trump's example of spurning political correctness does reveal something powerful in the Republican mood. The mood among the base -- even a black intellectual like Steele -- is that Obama is a fraud, an affirmative action case who's gotten a free ride due to his race. This captures a widespread belief on the right as to how Obama won election in 2008:

The Trump episode does demonstrate the voracious demand among Republicans for a candidate who will say what Republicans really think of him, or at least come close to doing so. Steele is offering terrible advice for beating Obama, but very good advice for becoming the candidate who runs against him.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/89008/shelby-steele-bound-man