Obama, Romney, and the Washington Generals: Reflections on Class Rule and Theater Politics

I have fond childhood memories of my parents taking me to see the all-black basketball troupe the Harlem Globetrotters at the Chicago Stadium during the 1960s. Staffed in their early days by some of the finest basketball players in the world, the Globetrotters once engaged in epic contests with the early National Basketball Association’s reigning champion – the Minneapolis Lakers. By the time I saw them, however, the Globetrotters only worked their “theater basketball” magic against the “Washington Generals” – a crew of second-rate semi-professionals once aptly described as “a bunch of slow white guys who couldn’t make it in the Italian League.”[1] 


The Generals were no match for the Globetrotters. Even on nights when they might have given the Globetrotters some competition, the Generals were paid patsies, professional fall-guys hired to look inept and stupefied by the athletic and comedic brilliance of the Globetrotters.[2]


Obama’s Washington Generals, 1996-2008


I wonder if the hoops-addict Barack Obama has felt like the Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals during some of the past elections he has won. Except for a premature, ill-fated primary run against the entrenched Congressional Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) in 2000 and his 2008 battle with the Iraq War-damaged Hillary Clinton (who might well have prevailed if her handlers had undertaken a serious strategy in Caucus states), Obama has cruised against some remarkably unimpressive rivals.[3]


After muscling the progressive Democrat Alice Palmer out of her South Side Chicago seat in the Illinois Senate in 1996, the future president won three state legislative elections essentially unopposed since, as his first biographer noted,” the Republican Party was practically non-existent in African American districts on [Chicago’s] South and West sides.”[4]


In his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate seat that was abandoned after one term by Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL), Obama’s initially formidable multimillionaire primary opponent Blair Hull collapsed under the weight of an ugly past divorce. A sex scandal undid his at first imposing Republican opponent Jack Ryan. When Ryan was forced out late in the game, the Republicans imported the laughable neoconservative Alan Keyes (a true Washington General) to make a sacrificial run against what had become the Obama phenomenon. (Ryan did not implode before the threat he posed was deemed great enough for the Democratic Party to give [not lame-duck Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm] the plum assignment of the Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention – the speech that made Obama into an overnight superstar).

Four years later, Obama was rewarded with highly flawed opponents atop the ticket of a party that was badly damaged by the long national nightmare of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The fuming and befuddled John McCain couldn’t remember how many homes he owned and proclaimed that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” (listed by Time Magazine as one of “The Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-Liners” in American history[5]) even as the biggest financial collapse and recession in more than six decades unfolded before the nation’s eyes. As for Sarah “Going Rogue” Palin, all you have to do is mention her name and eyes start rolling.



“If [Romney Was] a Bain Company, He’d Shut Himself Down”


Which brings us to the astonishingly terrible candidacy of Mitt “Mr. .01%” Romney. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes, “The billion-dollar Republican campaign should be sweeping the floor with the deflated President Obama after four years of 8 percent-plus unemployment.” Instead, it’s losing badly and it has Romney to blame.


“Mitt Romney,” Dowd notes,  “is awkward, off-putting, and hollow, so bad that if he were a Bain company, he would shut himself down…Aside from Mitt’s penchant for being a piñata, the [Romney] campaign is a movable feast of missteps: spending money at the wrong time; putting on biographical ads too late; letting the Obama camp define Romney before he defined himself; staging a disastrous foreign trip; fumbling the convention; and somehow neglecting to tell the candidate that there is no longer any such thing as off the record, if there ever was.” [6]


“How,” Times columnist Frank Bruni asks, “did someone so politically maladroit get this far?” [7]


Which is Romney’s biggest blunder so far:


  • Advancing a clueless definition of “middle class” that includes people with annual incomes as high as $250,000?


  • Telling a reporter that his favorite bedtime apparel was “as little as possible”?


  • Absurdly delaying and playing cat and mouse with the tax returns on his outlandish fortune?


  • Accusing the British government of mishandling the 2016 Olympics on a “goodwill” campaign trip to England?


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