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posted: 10/11/2012 5:00 AM

Desperately seeking the real Obama

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Last week something notable happened. The Daily Caller, a conservative website, came up with a tape of President Obama speaking in the spring of 2007 to an audience of black ministers about matters of concern to black ministers and their black congregants. After the tape was aired, conservative commentators announced with considerable urgency that they had discovered "the real Barack Obama." He is -- and there are reliable sources for this -- a black man!

The perspicacious Fox News host Sean Hannity was among the first to note the importance of the speech. He said it offered "a glimpse into the mind of the real Barack Obama." The real Barack Obama is not, as you might foolishly think, the man who has been in the White House for almost four years -- covered by the media, giving speeches, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys and not returning the phone calls of key members of Congress. He is, instead, the man who gave a single speech back in 2007 and who lapsed, as many politicians do before black audiences, into a black speech cadence that, if you ask me, he should use more often.

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As for the speech itself, while it might have sounded innocuous to the average (white person's) ear, it supposedly contained "dog whistle" messages that could only be heard by black people in the audience. This explained the headline on a column by Washington Examiner columnist Gregory Kane: "Obama's dog-whistle speech from 2007." Kane, too, wondered if the speech revealed "a glimpse of the real Barack Hussein Obama."

The search for the True Obama is the Holy Grail of the conservative movement. It is a quixotic quest, a fool's errand, which induces a kind of delirium in the president's critics. The 2007 speech itself is evidence of this recurring madness. It was not, as both stated and implied, overlooked at the time. It was matter-of-factly reported by various news organizations, and so the tape contained nothing startlingly new. One bit of stale news was that Obama had praised the rabid Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom he would eventually dump as his spiritual adviser. He also pandered to the audience. I guess this is the sort of thing only radicals do.

Some of us, in fact, think we know the real Barack Obama. He is a man of the center -- or maybe a wee to the left of it -- who is prudent in all things, dotes on his children and is loving to his wife. His most radical program is called Obamacare and if it has sent us all down the road to socialism, we have somehow become stuck in a suburban cul-de-sac. Instead of a single-payer plan -- the one adopted by much of the industrialized world -- we stick with private insurance companies, those softhearted institutions that would, if they could, seize the La-Z-Boy from under a retiree. This is not Trotsky. It's not even Hubert Humphrey.

I'm glad Kane slipped in Obama's middle name with all its jihadist overtones, because it plays a role in making the president a mysterious man of the left. It makes him a trifle weird and since he seems to have come from somewhere at sea -- Hawaii? Indonesia? -- he really could be a Muslim or something even else, although my imagination fails me here. It does not fail others, though. Dinesh D'Souza has cited Obama's exotic provenance to assert that the president "draws his identity and his values from a Third World, anti-American ideology that goes by the name of anti-colonialism." In his latest book, D'Souza even does a Cotton Mather number on Obama's mother. "Ann's sexual adventuring may seem a little surprising in view of the fact that she was a large woman who kept getting larger." For rebuttal, how about a mouthful of soap?

This need to turn a political foe into the frightening "other" is a reaction against modernity -- the permanent platform of the Republican Party. The country is changing demographically, socially, culturally. A lot of the change is unwelcome, trashy -- Kardashian to the Nth degree. Remarkably, the man who gets the blame for all this is a dad out of a '50s sitcom, a national security hawk who, in his personal qualities, is an insurance underwriter's dream. Still, the right awaits the Freudian slip that will reveal Obama's trueness, a lapse into possibly Russian or, worse, French. Liberals long ago realized they had idealized Obama. Only conservatives still hope he is a different man.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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