Well, suppose you were the first black president of the United States and, therefore, also the first black head-of-state in the entire history of Western Civilization. You represent a human first, something entirely new under the sun. There aren't even any myths that speak directly to your circumstance, no allegorical tales of ancient black kings who ruled over white kingdoms.Of course, Steele offers no credit to Obama or anyone else for the accomplishment--no acknowledgement of the generations of civil rights activists, everyday African-Americans, white liberals, or other minorities who made Obama's presidency possible.
And none was expected. Shelby Steele is a salaried conservative at the Hoover Institute who has exactly as much intellectual freedom as David Frum had at the American Enterprise Institute.
In other words--none.
Sour grapes might play a part here as well. Steele wrote a book predicting that Obama could not win the presidency because of his connections with the black community.
Anyway, Steele's argument is that the monumental character of Obama's accomplishment in getting elected has created an enormous self-importance that pushes Obama to push "big ideas" like health care reform.
That idea might have some credibility if Obama's had been the first Democrat to pursue health care reform or his health care proposals had been any kind of surprise. But Democratic presidents have been pursuing health care reform going back to FDR and all Democratic presidential candidates who even pretended to being serious contenders in 2008 had to have a detailed health reform plan. Obama, Hillary, and John Edwards all had big health reform proposals. I bet Joe Biden and Bill Richardson had them too. Even Joe Lieberman had a big health care proposal when he was running for president in 2004.
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.
Barack Obama didn't have to be black to have big ideas on domestic policy, he had to be a Democrat. Of course, one can argue that the Democrats have been heavily influenced by the African-American wing of the party since the heyday of the civil rights movement and that all Democrats have something of an African-American optimism concerning hope for social reform.
But that would have made Bill Clinton the first African-American president and forced hacks like Shelby Steele to blame all of Bill Clinton's shortcomings on the fact that he was black.