My young acquaintance, the son of a good friend, had voted in his first presidential election last year. From our discussions prior to that day in November, I assumed he was an Obama man, but I never asked him. He has taken note of the sometimes-bizarre criticisms of the president in just the last few weeks, although, like most folks his age, he's primarily concerned with work and making enough to buy his gas and where the next steps in his life will take him.
But following the bombast of South Carolina U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson during President Barack Obama's speech on health care before Congress, he asked a question sadly not uncommon among the more moderate observers of government and politics. And it is sad, to be sure. The question is: Why do they hate him so much?
The degree of what really is, in some cases, out-and-out hatred has been evidenced in the last couple of months in ways both general and specific, subtle and blatant. It's long been there. One of the lingering moments from the presidential campaign trail remains the question and answer session at a rally for Sen. John McCain, Obama's honorable Republican opponent. A woman told McCain she didn't like Obama and thought he was an Arab. The senator pulled the microphone back with a look of profound distress on his face and sternly corrected her view.
Why do they hate him so much? A haunting thought.
One quick answer, starting to bubble up from just beneath the surface, where it's lingered since the then-senator from Illinois launched his campaign for the White House, is race. Is some of the vicious rhetoric directed at the president's every move motivated by the fact that many people are simply unhappy with the fact that America, some two centuries after the Declaration of Independence, has a black man in the White House?
Certainly our racial tensions are strong, and prejudice may be a defining issue for some people.
But the depth of the resentments against Obama goes beyond it. Consider just the most recent examples: lingering questions about his birth certificate, after a presidential campaign in which all candidates were given a background exam comparable to the Mayo Clinic's "executive" physical. Short of cutting the candidates open, there wasn't much more we could have known.
Then there were the suggestions to hold kids out of school to have them avoid a presidential address. Turned out the speech was about staying in school and personal responsibility.
And there are the continuing rumblings, in the course of the health-care debate, about socialism and communism. The man is president of the world's greatest democracy, and attained that position because of the glorious freedoms in that republic. And why exactly would socialism be attractive to him? There was the reader who called to answer a rhetorical question posed in an N&O editorial as to whether people really thought Obama would put Americans in danger with regard to national security. "Yes, he would," the fellow said. Again ... why would a president do that?
These things, these examples of a degree of personal animosity and yes, hate, toward the president, someone elected by a free people, are mystifying. It's easier to understand the yahoos like a congressman embarrassing himself, or the others that night who booed with gusto. They just don't show much class.
And it's also easy to figure the inane ramblings of the talking heads in various conservative media forums. They're not in the business of thoughtful commentary.
They're in show business, and some are indeed very good at playing to an audience inclined to agree with them. Not that it's particularly difficult work. For as long as the political process has existed, many a campaign for a candidate or a cause has counted on hate as a motivator.
If ever we Americans needed to unite, in every effort from improving our health care to reforming an economic system that ran wild (and took many casualties on the ride) to finding and creating jobs to maintaining vigilance against international terrorism, this is it.
We do not need to follow a president as if he were always right, or defer to him as if he were a monarch.
But we should want to be able to say that we at least gave him a chance.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.