Barack Obama has become a Sikh joke. The 44th president of the United States, a man who offered himself up to the world as the cosmopolitan alternative to the Little Americanism of the Bush years, has dropped plans to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar—the Vatican, as it were, of the Sikh religion—on his state visit to India in early November. As The New York Times reports, the president would have had to cover his head with a knotted handkerchief on his visit to the shrine, in keeping with Sikh religious tradition, so the White House invertebrates scuttled plans to go there out of fear that images of Obama with a cloth on his head would reignite rumors that he is a Muslim.
The president is frightened of shadows. As a critic once said of a famous actor's portrayal of Lear, "He played the king as if someone else was about to play the ace." The White House's decision to skip the Sikh temple is not proof so much of paranoia, though it has that in abundance, but of cowardice. This is one of those rare episodes that have the ability to distill a political essence, rather like Jimmy Carter being jumped by a rabbit. The old, bold Obama is gone: He now governs in fear, with a keenly pusillanimous regard for birthers and other boo-birds, the noisy, self-regarding elements of the American political fringe.
A major part of Obama's original appeal to the world was that he seemed to transcend, both in his very being and in his declarations, the powerful strain of insularity that runs through American politics. Since none of his predecessors had any firsthand knowledge of other countries and cultures, their understanding of them was, perforce, mediated through the prism of American self-interest.
Obama was believed to be different: He'd lived abroad for many of his formative years, and appeared to have the ability to understand other people on their own terms. This superior cross-cultural knack could have been invaluable in crafting a foreign policy that asserted American interests in a more complex way—by separating those cultures that are in harmony with American values from those that aren't, and then staking out a more expansive common ground with the former. But what hope can there be for such policy if Obama cannot even bring himself to visit a holy place in the territory of a staunch ally?
Once upon a time, Obama made it a point to stress that America is the home of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as of nonbelievers. (His omission of the Sikhs in that Easter address was not, I think, deliberate.) This was a welcome breakthrough in American public discourse. But he has shown, more than once, that he lacks the courage of his cosmopolitan convictions. Remember the incident when a woman with a Muslim headscarf was denied a seat among the people banked behind him as he spoke at a presidential campaign rally? Remember his coming out in defense of the mosque near ground zero, and then recalibrating that defense in light of criticism?
And now, instead of leading on the issue of religious tolerance by beaming for the cameras in Amritsar, Sikh handkerchief firmly on head, he has backed away. Note that the trip to India will be after the midterm elections, so he can't be worried about the adverse impact of Amritsar images on his party's performance. He is worried, instead, about his own image. (That said, the 250,000 Sikhs who live in California are surely, now, looking at Carly and Meg with a new enthusiasm.)
The president has shown, more than once, that he lacks the courage of his cosmopolitan convictions.
Americans are much, much better than their political leaders ever give them credit for. The overwhelming majority of Sikhs in the U.S. go to work every day without harassment from their neighbors and colleagues. You can focus on a few stray incidents of violence against Sikhs after 9/11, but why ignore the fact that 99.9 percent of them have suffered no problems; Americans, overwhelmingly, are decent people. Sikhs have done marvelously well in Wall Street, with their turbans on. They serve in the U.S. Army, with their turbans on.
Above all, what does this decision to avoid Amritsar tell us about how this White House feels about Americans? Does it feel that ordinary Americans will pillory their president for having associated himself with "ragheads" in Amritsar? Is this a variant of that elite condescension for ordinary folks who are "bitter," and who "cling to guns and religion"?
That Obama can't find a way to explain the symbolism of a little square of cloth on his head—placed there by enthusiastic, welcoming Indian hosts who wish him and America well—suggests that he has lost confidence in his own intellect, his own charisma, his own eloquence. A man once celebrated for his promise of change now allows a state visit to be shaped by his fear of the blogosphere—and by his fear of abuse that might come at him from an ignorant subset of the American population. Let's just call it the pygmification of a president, and lament the gutlessness of this White House.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)