Obama the Man
After last week's post I did a great deal of thinking, and at length I have decided to address a topic I have generally stayed away from. I spent a lot of time in the early days of this blog (fall 2004) analyzing George W. Bush's personality; I have spent much less time on Barack Obama's, partly, I suppose, because I wished him success. Yet he is not succeeding, and it won't do any good to ignore elephants in the room. Barack Obama's personality is in many ways the opposite of what his bitterest opponents think, but it is getting away of effective governance all the same. And while I have never met him and probably never will, there's no reason why I shouldn't use insights from Alice Miller and elsewhere on him as well.
A year or two ago I was talking on the phone with a very interesting friend of mine and the television show The Wire came up. I asked him who his favorite character was. For the benefit of those of who who watched that amazing show, my favorite was Lester, the quiet, highly intelligent Boomer who had never wanted, or risen to, a position of authority, but who took intense pleasure in running down the details of the case. If you've ever read any of my books you'll know why I liked him. I can't remember who my friend's favorite character was, but I told him I had read recently that Barack Obama liked the show, and his favorite character was Omar. Omar was an Xer, like the President, and an anarchist. He wasn't a drug dealer, but he made his living with a couple of friends robbing drug dealers. He was also gay, and he helped kill Stringer Bell, the drug kingpin who took classes at the local business school, after Bell killed a lover of his. "Well, I can see why Obama loves Omar," my friend said, "because he obviously has a fantasy of. . .shooting everybody." I had to think about that one for a long time.
I haven't yet had time to read the biography of Obama's mother Stanley Ann Dunham, but the reviews were very informative. The childhood of many Gen Xers was marked by divorce, moves, economic turmoil, and growing up much too fast. Obama's childhood had all that, plus a few years living in a distant third world country--an experience which is not easy even if you are living in an embassy residence, as I was, and which he most certainly was not. His mother had two husbands and a number of other men, it seems, in her life. When he was ten he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. Both his mother and his grandparents evidently made clear, however, that they had great hopes for him, and he responded. Punahou School is the Sidwell Friends of Hawaii, and he evidently performed well enough to go first to a good liberal arts college in California and then as a transfer student to Columbia. Then came his two years as a community organizer--which seem to have had almost no effect on him--Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law Review, and his legal and political career in Chicago.
All this sounds very easy, but I think that is profoundly misleading. Barack Obama as a child and young man had to prove that he could put up with anything and still perform as expected, and he did. He indulged in some outlaw behavior in high school but never seems to have been directly rebellious against his parent or grandparents. He became President of the Law Review by emerging a conciliator, winning support from conservative and liberal factions. Let us not kid ourselves: no one has ever run for President, ever, who did not have an enormous need for personal recognition. That often comes, as Alice Miller pointed out, from childhood trauma. And it can create highly adaptable personalities, of which Obama seems to be one.
There are at least two episodes in Obama's adult life which, while they have gotten some attention, have gotten it from the wrong angle. One is his membership in Jeremiah Wright's church. When Wright's sermons came to public attention in 2008, conservatives eagerly argued that they represented Obama's own views. They obviously didn't--but there's the problem. Wright's church was politically visible, and Obama found it expedient to join it, even though he evidently does not think like Wright at all. This was another adaptation.
The second episode is Obama's fascination with former Harvard President Larry Summers, who is known to all who have dealt with him as one of the most personally difficult people on earth. The Kennedy White House initially included some one quite similar to Summers, another economist, Walt Rostow, who knew exactly what should be done in any situation and why. Rostow lasted less than a year in the White House because JFK did not want to listen, apparently, to that kind of man. (He returned to the White House, disastrously, under LBJ.) But Obama did not mind working with Summers for two years. I was so shocked by Summers's original appointment that I really went into denial over it and hoped for the best--but Summers was very influential in selling the President on the new economic orthodoxy. He believed that only monetary problems had caused the Great Depression, and that easy monetary problems could solve the crisis we faced in 2009. He also did not want to undo any of the deregulatory reforms he had helped push through under Clinton. He was terribly wrong on both counts and Obama is paying a terrible price for listening to him.
As I think about these issues, I wonder whether Obama's accommodating nature may also be the key to his puzzling treatment of the Clintons. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was surprising but many explained it in an Abraham Lincoln sort of way, as a means to co-opt his leading rival within his own party. But that was only the first of many, many key appointments of veterans of the Clinton Administration--in other words, of the Democratic establishment. Obama has not wanted to put his own stamp on things. He has not, unlike FDR or JFK, made national figures out of virtual unknowns like Robert McNamara or Harry Hopkins or Harold Ickes. He has also, as I have noted, failed to inspire those around him, many of whom have already left the Administration. Even his Supreme Court appointments are moderate liberals, well to the right of Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, or Thurgood Marshall.
Some one who has had to repress his deepest feelings all his life loses touch with them, and finds it easier to rely on conventional wisdom than on his own eyes. If like Obama he is something of an outsider, he learns to take advantage of the fear he might arouse, as he did, perhaps, at Harvard Law. But what worked with the conservatives among his fellow law students has not worked with John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Even to fight these Republicans to a draw, rather than steadily retreat before their onslaught, would have required a completely different approach, one of which, as yet, he has proven incapable. I will be delighted but very surprised if this week's speech marks a real departure.
There is no doubt that I will be voting for Barack Obama a year from November. He believes in rationality, in some measure of equality at least, in science, in the separation of church and state, and in at least some of the achievements of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. He will probably face an opponent who believes in none of those things, leaving me with a very easy choice. Yet I do not think at this point that his re-election will put the United States on a new path. The best it could do would be to calm our political climate, put the disastrous crisis of the last ten years behind us, and allow for some problem solving to begin at least at the local level. But that is much much better than what a Republican victory would mean.