If you don't know, now you know.

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The Republican Obsession With a Secret Obama

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Chris Christie on Monday repeated a familiar but still bizarre Republican belief about Barack Obama: "We have a guy in the Oval Office who we don't know. He's been serving us for 7 years and we don't know him." As Slate's Jamelle Bouie said, "I've heard this hundreds of times and I still don't know what it means."

Some on Twitter tried to decipher it: 

Mischiefs of Faction's Julia Azari put it this way: "It strikes me as a bit similar to Islamophobic remarks about how we don't understand that religion, those people, that culture, etc. Orientalist mystery+panic." 

Yes, one reasonable interpretation of the fixation on "now knowing" Obama is a Republican obsession with race -- or, as Obama once put it, with "a black guy ... with a funny name."  

Yet think back to Bill Clinton. What did we "know" about him? For Republicans and his enemies, he was a liar, a philanderer, a draft-dodger, a possibly brainwashed Communist sympathizer, an international drug smuggler, a serial murderer and probably other things I've forgotten but that will be dragged up again in the current presidential campaign. That is: Republicans were not content with Clinton's real faults, but constantly invented new ones, always convinced that if only they uncovered one more "fact," the American people would finally wake up and realize they had been hoodwinked. It's what Republicans now believe about Obama. 

In other words, Republicans who are still obsessed, seven years on, that Obama "wasn't vetted" aren't necessarily thinking the media is suppressing important things about him because he's black. They may simply believe that all Democratic politicians are thugs or worse -- whatever it is their talk-radio hosts and some politicians are telling them. Thus, if the press hasn't figured out what kind of miscreant Obama might be, then it is clearly missing something important.

I'm not saying that race is irrelevant to Republicans' understanding of Obama. It isn't. After all, Obama isn't just a black president. He's from the same black party that previously elected Bill Clinton. We just shouldn't assume that Obama is uniquely demonized, or that he's the only one perceived as having "secrets" or putting one over on the American people.

Our culture believes that individuals, not parties or other institutional actors, drive most of what happens in U.S. politics, especially at the top. So policies that appear obviously wrongheaded (such as Obamacare to Republicans or the invasion of Iraq to many Democrats) seem to cry out for some explanation based on understanding the president himself.

Back in the real world, what has been striking about Obama is how little his actions in the last seven years need explanation based on his personal traits. As president he has been essentially a generic Democrat. His policies and priorities are more or less what Hillary Clinton or other major Democratic contenders in 2008 would have pursued if one of them had been elected instead.  Consider how few significant fights Obama has had with Democrats in Congress.

So we "know" this president just as well as we know any other politician. Or we don't need to know him well to understand his presidency. 

  1. Obama’s skill level was different from what another Democratic president would have had (some say it was better; some say it was worse). But the implication of the “we don’t know him" line isn't about skill. (Christie went on to say, "We don’t know what he really cares about.") It implies Obama's policies are affected by things we don’t know about him.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net