Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Five Faces of Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama looks over a speech on his campaign plane

If Barack Obama had not chosen a life in politics, he might have made a fine psychotherapist. He is a master at taking what you've told him and feeding it right back. What I hear you saying is....
Open his book The Audacity of Hope to almost any page and listen. On immigration, for example, Obama first mirrors "the faces of this new America" he has met in the ethnic stew pot of Chicago: "in the Indian markets along Devon Avenue, in the sparkling new mosque in the southwestern suburbs, in an Armenian wedding and a Filipino ball." Then he pivots to give voice to the "anxieties" of "many blacks" and "as many whites about the wave of illegal immigration," adding: "Not all of these fears are irrational." He admits that he knows the "frustration" of needing an interpreter to speak to one's auto mechanic and in the next breath cherishes the innocent dreams of an immigrant child.

In other words, he hears America singing — and griping, fretting, seething, conniving, hoping, despairing. He can deliver a pitch-perfect expression of the racial anger of many American blacks — as he did in his much discussed speech on race relations earlier this year — and, just as smoothly, unpack the racial irritations gnawing at many whites. To what extent does he share any of those emotions? The doctor never exactly says.
Consciously or unconsciously, Obama has been honing this technique for years. During his time at Harvard Law School in the 1980s, the student body was deeply divided. In one heated debate, Obama so adroitly summarized the various positions without tipping his own hand that by the end of the meeting, as Professor Charles Ogletree told one newspaper, "everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me."

He has been called a window into the American psyche. Or you might say he's a mirror — what you see depends on who you are and where you stand. Obama puts it this way: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." But those metaphors all suggest that he is some sort of passive instrument, when in fact his elusive quality is an active part of his personality. It's how you square the fact that Obama once wrote the most intimate memoir ever published by a future nominee yet still manages to avoid definition. At his core, this is a deeply reserved and emotionally reticent man. Consider this anecdote from Dreams from My Father: as a young man in New York City, he lived next door to an elderly recluse "who seemed to share my disposition." When he happened to meet his neighbor returning from the store, Obama would offer to carry the old man's groceries. Together, the two of them would slowly climb the stairs, never speaking, and at the top, the man would nod silently "before shuffling inside and closing the latch ... I thought him a kindred spirit," Obama concludes.

Both his rhetorical style and his ingrained disposition tend to obscure rather than reveal. This is how Obama remains enigmatic no matter how much we see of him. As the campaign enters its last chapter, it may not be enough for him to say, as he often does, "This election is not about me ... this campaign is about you." Supporters and opponents alike want a clearer picture of Obama, and they are selecting elements of his words, policies, public record and biography to shape their clashing interpretations. Those pieces of Obama are also open to interpretation, because so few of them are stamped from any familiar presidential mold: the polygamous father, the globe-traveling single mother, the web of roots spreading from Kansas to Kenya, friends and relatives from African slums to Washington and Wall Street, and intellectual influences ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Malcolm X. Four of the faces of Obama pose various threats to his hopes for victory. The fifth is the one his campaign intends to drive home, from the convention in Denver right to Election Day.

1. The Black Man

Henry Louis Gates Jr. once wrote an essay on the life of writer Anatole Broyard, the light-complexioned son of two black parents who lived his life passing as a white man. "He wanted to be a writer," Gates explained, but "he did not want to be a Negro writer. It is a crass disjunction, but it is not his crassness or his disjunction ... We give lip service to the idea of the writer who happens to be black, but had anyone, in the postwar era, ever seen such a thing?"
Obama tells a parallel story in his memoir, the journey of a man raised by his Caucasian mother and grandparents who seeks his identity as an African American. Along the path, he was drawn to a number of older black men who argued that America's racial divide is absolute and unbridgeable. Obama recalls a visit as a teenager to the home of a black man his white grandfather considered a friend. To his surprise, the man explained that it was hopeless to think any white man could truly befriend someone black. "He can't know me," the man said of Obama's grandfather. No matter how close they might seem, "I still have to watch myself."
That is resolutely not the message communicated in Obama's campaign, however. "I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation or victimhood generally," he has declared. He enjoys nearly unanimous support from African Americans in polls; nevertheless, just as Broyard sought to avoid being labeled a "Negro writer," Obama resists efforts to define him as a "black candidate." And for some of the same reasons too. As soon as the race label is added, some of the audience tunes out, others are turned off and still others leap to conclusions about who you are and how you think. Obama has written that race was his "obsession" growing up but that he long ago left that burden behind. Now he lays claim to the whole spectrum: "the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas" with "brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents."

The question, to borrow from Gates, is whether enough people in 2008 are ready to imagine such a thing. There's an interesting scene in Dreams in which Obama meets for the first time another of those influential elders — the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Earlier this year, Wright's comments about race led Obama to repudiate his former pastor. In an uncanny way, this conversation from more than 20 years ago goes directly to the heart of Obama's current dilemma. The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson had published a book arguing that the role of race in shaping society was giving way to class. But for Wright, the concept of a postracial politics simply didn't compute. "These miseducated brothers," the pastor fumed to the young Obama, "like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about 'the declining significance of race.' Now, what country is he living in?"

If identity politics might gain some black votes for Obama, it can also cost him votes elsewhere. So how many Americans will agree with Wright that race is still front and center? The number is notoriously slippery, because voters don't always tell pollsters the truth. At the Weekly Standard, a magazine with a neocon tilt, writer Stanley Kurtz rejects Obama's postracial message because he suspects it isn't sincere. Probing the coverage of Obama's career as an Illinois legislator in the black-oriented newspaper the Chicago Defender, Kurtz concluded, "The politician chronicled here is profoundly race-conscious." Though Kurtz's message is aimed primarily at whites, it's not so different from one angrily whispered by Jesse Jackson. "I want to cut his nuts off," Jackson fumed — because he believes that Obama's race ought to determine which issues the candidate raises and how he discusses them. Either way, whether an opponent claims that Obama remains race-conscious or a supporter says he ought to be, both are rejecting the foundation of his campaign.

Figures like Jackson and Wright have invested a lifetime in the politics of black identity. Obama's success, whether it culminates in the White House or not, signals the passing of their era. So it is no wonder that younger voters have been key to his candidacy. Having grown up in the era of Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Tiger Woods and, yes, Henry Louis Gates Jr., they are better able to credit Obama's thesis that "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

2. The Healer

Dreams from My Father is the story of a quest — not for honor or fortune but for meaning. The book presents a wounded young man who has never felt entirely at home — not among whites or among blacks, neither in slums nor in student unions — and is haunted by "the constant, crippling fear that I didn't belong." He wants to know how to feel rooted and purposeful. At the end of his odyssey, he decides to take a leap of faith. For the young Obama, "faith in other people" becomes his home.

This is what he preaches: the seemingly unlimited power of people who are willing to trust, cooperate and compromise. Bringing people together for action, what he calls "organizing," holds "the promise of redemption." And without exactly saying it, Obama offers himself as the embodiment of his own message, the one-man rainbow coalition. You don't believe white and black can peacefully, productively coexist? Think the gulf between Chicago's South Side and the Harvard Law Review can never be bridged? Do you fear that the Muslim masses of Africa and Asia are incompatible with the modernity of the West or that cosmopolitan America and Christian America will never see eye to eye? Just look at me! It's not unusual to meet Obama supporters who say the simple fact of electing him would move mountains, changing the way the world looks at America, turning the page on the nation's racial history and so on. He is the change they seek.

The message doesn't work for everyone: so far, Obama's numbers in the national polls average below 50%. But his enormous and enthusiastic audiences are evidence that many people are intrigued, if not deeply moved. "Yes, we can!" turns out to be a powerful trademark at a time when 3 out of 4 Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Many Democrats placed their political bets on anger in recent years: anger at the war, anger over the disputed election in 2000, anger at Bush Administration policies. Obama doubled down on optimism, beginning with his careermaking speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention: "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope. In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead."

If you click deeply enough into Obama's website, you can find position papers covering enough issues to fill Congressional Quarterly. He has a specific strategy to refocus the military on Afghanistan. He backs a single-payer health-care system. But it wasn't some 10-point plan that turned Obama into a politician who fills arenas while others speak in school cafeterias. He knows that detailed policies tend to drive people apart rather than bring them together. People arrived to hear him out of fervor or mere curiosity, and they stayed for the sense of possibility. They heard rhetoric like this, from his speech claiming victory after his epic nomination battle: "If we are willing to work for it and fight for it and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth."

That's a pretty quick step from an election to nirvana, and Obama's opponents would like to turn such oratory against him. No one does it more effectively than radio host Rush Limbaugh, with his judo-master sense for his foes' vulnerabilities. Limbaugh rarely refers to Obama by his name. Instead, he drops his baritone half an octave and calls him "the messiah."

3. The Novice

Obama's critics tend to paint him two ways — related portraits but subtly different. The first is a picture of an empty suit, a man who reads pretty speeches full of gossamer rhetoric. "Just words," as Senator Hillary Clinton put it.

And it's true that Obama doesn't have a thick record of businesses he has built or governments he has run. For one thing, he has moved around too much. The restlessness in his résumé is striking: two years at Occidental College, two years at Columbia University, a year in business, three years as a community organizer and then law school. Obama's four two-year terms in the Illinois state senate are his version of permanence, but in two of those terms, he was busy running for higher office.

Voters accustomed to evaluating governors and generals may have a hard time deciding what value to place on a stint of "organizing." But it was surely real work. Reading Obama's account of his efforts to organize the residents in a single Chicago neighborhood, with weeks of toil going into staging a single meeting, is like watching a man dig the Panama Canal with a Swiss Army knife.

As for his conventional training, friends of Obama's like to point out that 12 years as a lawmaker is more experience than Abraham Lincoln, the original beanpole from Illinois, had in 1860. They note that the issues Obama is most drawn to — health-care reform, juvenile justice, poverty — aren't the easiest. They tell the story of his artful arm-twisting and cajolery in the Illinois senate on behalf of bills to reform campaign-finance laws and require police to videotape interrogations. Obama worked his colleagues one by one, on the floor, on the basketball court, at the poker table, and managed to pass some difficult legislation. "He's unique in his ability to deal with extremely complex issues, to reach across the aisle and to deal with diverse people" one Republican colleague, McCain supporter Kirk Dillard, told the Wall Street Journal.

That wasn't enough to impress Clinton in the primaries. She enjoyed noting that Obama was chairman of a Senate subcommittee yet had never convened a substantive hearing. John McCain's campaign will not be any more dazzled. In a sense, the question of Obama's preparation hinges on data that are still being gathered, because his greatest accomplishment is this unfolding campaign. For a man given to Zen-like circularities — "We are the change we seek" — the best proof that he can unite people to solve problems might be his ability to unite them to win an election.

4. The Radical

Others believe Obama is like the clever wooden offering of the Greeks to Trojans: something that appears to be a gift on the outside but is cunningly dangerous within. They find in his background and in what he leaves unsaid telltale signs of a radical. Obama has worked on education issues in Chicago with William Ayers and has visited the home of Ayers and his wife Bernadette Dohrn. Both were leaders of the violent, leftist Weather Underground. But the indictment of Obama framed by his opponents starts years earlier in Hawaii, with the black man who told Obama that a true friendship with his white grandfather wasn't possible. The man's name was Frank Marshall Davis, and in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s he was a well-known poet, journalist and civil rights and labor activist. Like his friend Paul Robeson and others, Davis perceived the Soviet Union as a "staunch foe of racism" (as he later put it in his memoirs), and at one point he joined the Communist Party. "I worked with all kinds of groups," Davis explained. "My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?"

The conservative group Accuracy in Media (AIM) is eager to paint the radical picture. In press releases and website articles, AIM calls Davis "Obama's Communist Mentor," although by the time they met, Davis had been out of politics for decades, and "mentor" may exaggerate his role in the young man's life. Still, it's clear that Obama did seek advice from the old man and that what he got was undiluted. "You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to get trained," Davis once warned Obama. "They'll train you so good, you'll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that s___." Did the future candidate take this to heart? Not according to him. "It made me smile," Obama recalls, "thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same '60s time warp."

Obama's memoir displays more familiarity with the ideas of the far left than most American politicians would advertise. His interest in African independence movements led him to the seminal work of Frantz Fanon, a Marxist sociologist, and he speaks in passing of attending "socialist conferences" at the Cooper Union in New York City. But as Obama told TIME, this was in the Reagan years, and he was also reading works by conservative giants like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He browsed among the ideologues but never bought in, he said. "I was always suspicious of dogma and the excesses of the left and the right."

Not all Obama critics see red, of course. Some merely believe he is more liberal than he claims to be. They cite a National Journal study, which Obama disputes, that rated him the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, and they aren't dissuaded by the candidate's recent positions in favor of gun owners and an electronic-surveillance bill loathed by civil libertarians.

There is another Trojan-horse interpretation just below the radar. It is the idea that a man named Barack Hussein Obama might be hiding a Muslim identity. Obama has tackled this dozens of times. His Kenyan grandfather was indeed a Muslim; his father espoused no faith; Obama attended a Muslim school in Indonesia for a time as a boy because that's where he lived — Indonesia is a Muslim country. He believed in no religion until he moved to Chicago as a grown man and was baptized Christian by Wright. As campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs puts it, "His Christian pastor and this Muslim thing — how can he have problems with both at the same time? Pick one."

But that's the problem with having five faces. There's more than one to choose from. The "secret Muslim" rumors about Obama may be scurrilous, but they survived the sudden fame of Obama's card-carrying Christian pastor. A recent poll found that 12% of Americans believe them.

5. The Future

Back up a few paragraphs and look again at something Obama wrote in his memoir. It's that passing reference to his mother living in a "'60s time warp." No presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy has so lightly dismissed those turbulent years. What could the Summer of Love have meant to a 6-year-old in Hawaii, or Woodstock to an 8-year-old in Indonesia? The Pill, Vietnam, race riots, prayer in school and campus unrest — forces like these and the culture clashes they unleashed have dominated American politics for more than 40 years. But Obama approaches these forces historically, anthropologically — and in his characteristic doctor-with-a-notepad style. In The Audacity of Hope, he writes about the culture wars in the same faraway tone he might use for the Peloponnesian Wars. ("By the time the '60s rolled around, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders had concluded," etc.) These fights belong to that peculiar category of the past known as stuff your parents cared about.

"I think that the ideological battles of the '60s have continued to shape our politics for too long," Obama told TIME. "The average baby boomer, I think, has long gotten past some of these abstract arguments about Are you left? Are you right? Are you Big Government? Small government? You know, people are very practical. What they are interested in is, Can you deliver schools that work?"

This aspect of Obama — the promise to "break out of some of those old arguments" — speaks powerfully to many younger Americans, who have turned out in record numbers to vote and canvass for him. Obama is the first national politician to reflect their widespread feeling that time is marching forward but politics is not, that the baby boomers in the interest groups and the media are indeed trapped in a time warp, replaying their stalemated arguments year after year. The theme recurs in conversations with Obama supporters: He just feels like something new.

Obama on the stump is constantly underlining this idea. As he told a recent town-hall meeting in a New Mexico high school gym, "We can't keep doing the things we've been doing and expect a different result." It's a message his campaign organization has taken to heart. Obama's is the first truly wired campaign, seamlessly integrating the networking power of technology with the flesh-and-blood passion of a social movement. His people get the fact that the Internet is more than television with a keyboard attached. It is the greatest tool ever invented for connecting people to others who share their interests. For decades, the Democratic Party has relied on outside allies to deliver its votes — unions, black churches, single-interest liberal groups. With some 2 million volunteers and contributors in his online database, Obama is perhaps a bigger force now than any of these. McCain may perceive Obama's enormous celebrity as a weakness — workhorse vs. show horse — but celebrity has its benefits. Obama will accept the nomination in front of a crowd of 76,000 in Denver's professional-football stadium, and the price of a free ticket is to register as a campaign volunteer.

Each of the first four Obama faces presents risks for his campaign, but the fifth prospect offers a way around many of them. If he can get through a general-election campaign without enlisting in the culture wars, he gains credibility as something new. That in turn might keep him from becoming mired in the trap of identity politics. Branding himself as the face of the future can neutralize the issue of inexperience. And if he can build his own political network strong enough to win a national election, he will lend credibility to his almost mystical belief in the power of organizing.

Obama's banners tout CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN, and this slogan cuts to the heart of the task before him. The key word isn't change, despite what legions of commentators have been saying all year. The key is believe. With gas prices up and home prices down; with Washington impotent to tackle issues like health care, energy and Social Security; with politics mired in a fifty-fifty standoff between two unpopular parties — plenty of Americans are ready to try a new cure. But will they come to believe that this new doctor, this charismatic mystery, this puzzle, is the one they can trust to prescribe it?


kdrt88 said...

Interesting blog you have here. Here's a sixth face of Obama: his identity as part of Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X).

Google Generation Jones, and you'll see it’s gotten a lot of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) specifically use this term to describe Obama.

It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
Generation Jones: 1954-1965
Generation X: 1966-1978

Here is an op-ed about Obama as the first GenJones President in USA TODAY:

And this page is a good overview of recent stuff about GenJones:

Post a Comment


car shipping | moving companies | charter bus | charter buses | bus charter | Engagement rings | wedding gowns | cheap business class flights to hong kong | Houston Defense Attorney