Barack Hussein Obama: What’s in a Name?


There is a troubling hint of something very un-American about the American president. I am not alluding to the birther controversy but rather to something in the president’s character, attitudes, personal aura, and worldview. He could just as well have been born in Podunk or Dogpatch and yet an un-American flavor would still cling about him. A little while back I tried a thought experiment with an American friend still partly dazzled by the president’s populist dexterity and acclaim. I asked him to recite the names of a dozen presidents at random, ending with POTUS 43. He proceeded: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush. I then asked him to pause for a moment and repeat the full name of the current occupant of the White House. He waited a moment and said: Barack Hussein Obama. A longish silence ensued and then he said, as if struck by recognition, “I see what you mean.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a flamboyant name and much to recommend it. A striking moniker can add a chromatic and ebullient element to the habitual, a dash of playfulness, a spirit of diversity. Nomenclature can be fun. Our athletes, after all, have practically cornered the market on appellate extravagance: Shomari Williams, Tearrius George, Ken-Yon Rambo, Marc-Olivier Brouillette, Na’Shan Goddard, LeBron James, Chip Cox, Dontrelle Inman, Jabar Westerman, Swayze Waters, Prince Amukamara, Jade Etienne — to name just a dozen. But in the context of presidential history and political expectation, “Barack Hussein Obama” remains glaringly idiosyncratic in the calendar of historically resonant names, exemplifying something scalene about the man as an American politician and leader, his conspicuous outrider status in the almanac of legacy assumptions. This is precisely what startled my interlocutor when he performed our little thought experiment. He perceived a basic asymmetry between the name and the office — in other words, to make the obvious transposition, between the man and the office.

Needless to say, liberals will seize upon the suspicion of implicit bigotry or “racism” in such a nominal exercise, but I can assure them that Obama’s lack of fit with the American presidency has nothing to do with origins or skin color, as Leftists will predictably clamor. As far as ancestry is concerned, his name could be Solomon Greenberg or Chjeng Huanyu — or Bobby Jindal — without being negatively emblematic or disturbing in the slightest. When it comes to pigmentation, the same applies. “Obama is sui generis in American presidents,” writes Jean Kaufman, “and I’m not referring to the fact that he’s the first black president.” Martin Luther King Jr. is undoubtedly a fine name for a president of the United States. Thomas Sowell fits perfectly. Herman Cain is good, too. More to the point, all would have likely made decent chief executives.

Drawing attention to the president’s name is both racially and lineally irrelevant. But given its Islamic tinnitus and its flourish of decided otherness, the name functions as a symbol, that is, an allegory of synoptic dislocation, a token of visceral difference. It signifies something bizarre, something nomadic, extraterritorial, and domestically ineffable, something unusual in the roster of commanders-in-chief. For columnist Ben Shapiro, Obama is a “lightweight,” a “joke,” and a “Hollywood president,” a man who prefers appearing on The View and with the Pimp with a Limp to dealing with affairs of state, and who tweets pics of himself standing beside a cardboard cutout captioned “You look familiar.” But the implications are far more serious. The fact is that Obama is not a president in the authentic sense of the term; he is a glittering name acting the role of president, and in this sense Shapiro is right, he is a “Hollywood president,” a man with marquee presence andStanislavski moves. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh calls the president Barack Kardashian, connoting the man’s celebrity allure and endemic shallowness. Some actors, however, few as they may be, do have a core personality, intellectual marrow, and moral substance. Obama does not, being in effect a mobile simulacrum of a cardboard cutout, which makes him as president of the United States not merely a joke and a lightweight but a disaster and a tragedy.