Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Understanding Barack Obama

People we know well often remain mysteries to us, just as we can sometimes be mysteries to ourselves. So it is not surprising that complex public figures we think we know are (and may remain) enigmas.

So it is with Barack Obama. All the photos and interviews and press conferences and speeches in the world only give us facets of this unusual man.

I notice that Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes, along with many other pundits and politicians who are able to observe the president up close, have been trying for the past four years to psychoanalyze him or understand what makes him tick. Dowd found the Bushes easy to skewer with that father-son rivalry, but Obama is a frustrating puzzle for her, elusive, hard to satirize because he is not simple.

Without analyzing Obama's policies, I decided to sort out for myself how I understand this complex man because I see history as a record of people and how they have shaped events, rather than of economic forces or military decisions. What is history but the human story?

Obama first impressed me as an Un-politician back in 2008 as he thoughtfully responded to interviewers' questions with an intelligence rarely found in pols. So I became intrigued with the man, his books, his family, the way his bi-racial past made him the cautious, cool outsider even while functioning as the ultimate insider.

In reading a recent piece in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer on Obama's distaste for fundraising and the belief of those around him that "big money is corrupt," a light bulb went on for me: he started to make sense. Obama is wary of the strings attached to big donations and keeps his distance from big donors, even at the risk of insulting them. I applaud his ethical standards, even though he knows he has to attend a Beverly Hills or Park Avenue bash and play the game he finds morally tainted. But he won't have his picture taken with the big donors, won't send thank you notes to them or invite them over. His parameters are clear just as his private time is private. Good for him.

The insight I had into the real Obama, as far as this can be discerned, comes from David Maraniss in his recent biography; he describes Obama as a man "with a moviegoer's or writer's sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating": he sees much of the political circus that surrounds him as ridiculous, even as he is deep in the center of it.

What interests me is the ambivalence of such a man and the kinship I can identify with as a writer and teacher (as he was), one who likes the life of the mind probably as much as his family. I am intrigued by his ability to distance himself from his own life.

This will make him a superb future autobiographer, after all the hoopla is over, as he looks back on what he has achieved. Whether it will translate into political success with a hostile Congress is quite another matter. Somehow I think his eye is really on what history will say about him.

I think it will say he was a highly disciplined man who, without much background as a leader, has done fairly well in uncommonly difficult times because he pays meticulous attention to details; this often results in delays in announcing decisions that have disappointed many, but it also results in an almost gaffe-free spoken record. Contrast this with his VP.

Obama has a quality I greatly admire: he is a patient listener who can skillfully think through complex issues as well as a speaker who can rise to great oratorical heights because, I think, he is, as Maraniss says, a writer (and reader) at heart, with a respect for language, thought and precision.

To his liberal supporters and many others, he has proven himself a disappointment because he has never fully revealed how essentially conservative he is at heart, which means in today's world of extremes that he is what moderate Republicans once were. With a touch of intellectual arrogance, he has not fully explained his policies as he should nor defended them with the vigor that comes with old-style politics.

But he has the historical good sense to know something important: that the founding fathers cared as much about discussing ways to advance the common good as they did about ensuring freedom. This concern with the common good, which he shares with the Catholic tradition of social teaching, says that we measure our success in the public sphere by how the working class and the poor are doing. This means that the government must in some ways be caring; Obama understands this and often references this. His policies may be called liberal, but his philosophy is more traditional and more difficult to categorize.

Obama is the postmodern politician, wary of the very process he has tried to re-fashion, as he re-defines his role as a national and world leader while also responding to the daily crises that arise. He has done so with admirable poise and dignity, much to the dismay of his many critics, even though he has made mistakes; at the same time he has raised many unanswerable questions about who he really is.

As frustrating as it may be to the pundits, he will doubtless remain, as all complex personalities are, forever interesting in his ambivalent responses to a world that is not (and never has been) black and white.

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