Shelby Steele is a National Embarrassment

Normally I don’t bother to comment on Op-Eds in the Wall Street Journal becuase, really what’s the point. But Shelby Steele’s column today arguing that Barack Obama is essentially an egomaniac for pursuing healthcare reform, and seeming to not even consider that people might consider that to be an important issue, is a unique case. It’s vintage Steele, using the fact of the author’s blackness to deliver a scurrilous racial charge that would rightly be viewed as offensive if a white writer were writing it, and then pivoting to an absurd charge that barely makes sense, but seems to damn liberals in Steele’s mid. The starting point here is that, in Steele’s mind, as the first black President, and first black head of government in Western history, Obama doesn’t have an arechtype to glom on to, and therefore no sense of political identity. This, Steele argues, has led Obama to view himself as an historic/mythical figure. Of course, Obama is an historic figure in Western history, but what the hell. Steele then argues that the healthcare reform effort is just a manifestation of Obama’s egomaniacal focus on his place in history:

Does this special burden explain Barack Obama’s embrace of scale as vision (if I don’t know what to do, I’ll do big things)? I think it does to a degree. It means, for example, that a caretaker presidency is not an option for him. His historical significance almost demands a kind of political narcissism. For him the great appeal of massive health-care reform—when jobs are a far more pressing problem—may have been its history-making potential.

Here was a chance for Mr. Obama not just to be a part of history but to make history. Here he could have an achievement commensurate with his own historical significance. To have left off health care and taken up jobs would have left him a caretaker rather than a history-maker. So he hung in with health care and today it can be said: Barack Obama has signed the most significant piece of social legislation in 45 years—achieving something that has eluded every president since FDR.

A historic figure making history, this is emerging as an over-arching theme—if not obsession—in the Obama presidency. In Iowa, a day after signing health care into law, he put himself into competition with history. If history shapes men, “We still have the power to shape history.” But this adds up to one thing: He is likely to be the most liberal president in American history.

Much like Robert Samuelson, Steele just isn’t a good enough writer to carry the ridiculous arguments he sets out to make, and the absurdity of his claims causes his writing to fall apart under their weight? Obama likes to talk about making history? That makes him different than basically every modern political leader how, exactly? Obama the most liberal President ever? I think the ACA is a monumental victory in social policy advancement, but to call Obama more liberal than FDR or LBJ or it is comical. The ridiculousness of the claims barely even require refutation, especially given that Obama is proposing more oil drilling on the same day this runs.

But the truly astonishing claim is that reform amounts to little more than a vanity project for Obama, a claim that requires you to believe Obama and other Democrats don’t actually believe healthcare reform is that important. This is of course belied by the fact that, far from being a new novelty, some form of healthcare reform has been attempted by every Democratic President since Truman. Obama isn’t the first President to tackle the issue, he’s just the first one to actually see a universal healthcare bill passed. And that does make him an historical figure, but that’s because healthcare reform is a very important issue.

It’s really not worth expecting much more out of Steele. His entire professional persona is built around the fact that he’s a black man willing to say offensive things about black people in general and insist that white people are uniquely awesome, and this appeals to a segment of the conservative movement because they get to live vicariously through him, or preface their own statements with “Shelby Steele said…” As I’ve said before, it’s good work if you can get it, and are willing to sell your soul (to say nothing of your personal integrity) for the money/stature. But it also requires the occassional ridiculous argument not at all tethered to reality. It just seems like that’s about all Steele is churning out these days.

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