Man of Steele
Is Michael Steele Barack Obama's evil twin?
Evil twin, nemesis, archenemy—whatever the term, every great protagonist has one. Superman had Bizarro, his alternate-universe self. Spock from Star Trek had the shady, goateed "mirror" Spock. Super Mario has the cackling Wario.
And Barack Obama has Michael Steele.
Evil twins have certain identifying characteristics. For one thing, they lead parallel existences. Obama and Steele are roughly the same age—Obama is 47, Steele is 50. They were both rising stars in their respective state parties. And they both now lead their respective national parties. But whereas Obama was blessed with supreme good fortune—he won his first state Senate race on a ballot technicality, and his opponent for U.S. Senate was Alan Keyes—Steele was less lucky. A Republican in a Democratic state, he chose the worst year possible to run for Senate: 2006. And while Obama cruised through the cesspool of Chicago politics with hardly an ethical blemish, Steele is now fighting accusations that he misspent campaign funds. (Steele called the allegations "not true.")
Evil twins also tend to have inverted moralities—or, in this case, politics. Whereas Obama favors government spending in the stimulus bill, Steele supports tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. "Individual empowerment—that's how you stimulate the economy," he says. On social issues, Steele has been reliably conservative, with the occasional exception. "I am philosophically the polar opposite of the man," Steele said of Obama in 2008.
And as the term would suggest, evil twins look similar but usually have distinctive physical differences—an eye patch, say, or a scar. Michael Steele, like Barack Obama, is African-American. But unlike Obama, he is bald and sports a mustache—a classic nemesis signifier, although a goatee would be ideal.
But those are just the circumstantial similarities. In recent weeks, Steele has made what seems like a concerted effort to fashion himself as the anti-Obama. Obama is calm under fire and seemingly unflappable. Steele delights in stirring things up. "How do you like me now?" he said during his victory speech—a seeming challenge to Obama. When the stimulus bill passed the House with zero Republican votes, Steele congratulated GOP members of Congress: "The goose egg that you laid on the president's desk was just beautiful," he said.
Steele has also made himself the anti-Obama in a rhetorical sense. They're both charismatic speakers. But Obama can get bogged down in details—a tendency on display at his wonk-tastic first White House press conference. He can also get so carried away with digressions and qualifications that you forget where he started. Steele has no such problem. "You and I know that in the history of mankind and womankind, government—federal, state or local—has never created one job," he told House Republicans in January. He repeated the point to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, saying that jobs created by the government aren't even jobs—they're "just work." If Obama's weakness is nuance, Steele's is the utter lack thereof.
The twin-ness even carries over to the way the two men view their race. During his campaign, with the notable exception of his "race speech" in Philadelphia, Obama made a concerted effort not to make his race an issue. He made the historic nature of his candidacy implicit. Steele has a trickier job. One of the reasons he was elected party chairman is his ability to reach out to minorities. So in a way his job is to emphasize his background. But sometimes it comes off weirdly. After Steele called Obama's stimulus package "a wish list from a lot of people who have been on the sidelines for years, to get a little bling, bling," Gawker declared: "The Republicans have finally found their voice: it's the voice of a 50-year-old using hiphop slang from the end of the '90s." Obama's hip-hop references are from at least 2003.
None of this, of course, is to say that Michael Steele is evil. In fact, "evil" twins sometimes turn out to be good. Or the "evil" one and the "good" one team up. Or we simply learn that the world is complicated and tolerates many reasonable, if clashing, perspectives. Whatever the result, Republicans have done a remarkable job at picking the perfect foil to lead the charge against Obama. Although he really should grow a goatee.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.