Cover story 2009 has shown the American president to possess a keen practical understanding of the acquisition and use of power, David Samuels writes.
Dreams from Obama
2009 has shown the American president to possess a keen practical understanding of the acquisition and use of power, David Samuels writes. Barack Obama appears curiously detached from the choices that he makes. The admirers who plastered his name across the bumpers of their Volvos still admire him, but they no longer love him. As president, he seems to have inoculated himself against the passions of the people who voted him into office. The lofty poetry of his speeches is emptied of its meaning when conjoined to the cautious and prosaic results of government by committee. Passion is the province of his opponents on the American left, whose anger at the president has not yet approached the fury of the loony right, but may some day come close. The left is angry with Obama because he let them believe that he was someone else, and he doesn't apologise for who he actually is. He believes that the great is the enemy of the good, and he unabashedly prefers the good.
Obama is famous for his self-control. He does not appear especially perturbed by failure. He doesn't lose his temper. He doesn't seem to get too high or too low. He understands the exercise of his decision-making authority as part of the function he plays within the executive system. This isn't to say that Obama is a puppet and some team of behind-the-scenes plutocrats and generals is secretly pulling the strings. It is to say that he has a more sophisticated understanding of power than the people who elected him, or those who criticise him for reading pretty speeches off a Teleprompter.
At times he has seemed to be more comfortable in the role of commentator and observer than as leader. These are some interesting problems to think about, his demeanour suggests. He is not so much surprised to find himself as President of the United States - as George Bush sometimes seemed to be - as he is detached from the mythic dimensions of his role. He knows that the gap between White House stagecraft, designed to make the president appear to be 100 feet tall, and the true capacities of even a highly evolved human like himself are comically large. He knows that most of what he is told in confidence is noise. His deliberate, controlled style highlights the demented tendencies of radioland critics, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and makes the excitable partisans of his own party look like midgets. The press attaché who said that the White House would not give interviews to Fox News was fired, and then the President of the United States appeared on Fox, as if to announce that he, unlike his adversaries and supporters, was above it all.
The experts love Barack Obama because he is the man who needs them the most. He is an outsider who returns the confidence of the American policymaking elites by giving them the opportunity to erase the memory of their high-profile failures. As Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner can solve the problems he helped create as head of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York under George Bush, just as Larry Summers can try to undo the derivatives bonanza he helped to create under Bill Clinton. Robert Gates runs America's war in Afghanistan, which he neglected as Secretary of Defense under George Bush and which he helped to create as the director of operations at the CIA under Ronald Reagan. The appointment of these men was a stroke of pure genius on the part of an outsider with no real institutional capital of his own to draw on. Every one of his leading potential critics was made a hostage to Obama's fortune and forced to put their Rolodexes at his disposal. The message to his appointees, and to their friends and patrons, is clear: I am the only game in town.
In his first and most revealing autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Obama makes a point of the fact that he doesn't like liberals all that much - which is surprising, considering that he is obviously a liberal himself. What makes him different from the liberal idealists that he dislikes is in part a matter of genealogy. He is a liberal of the rationalist decision-making school that got its comeuppance in David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, a book that is still read at the Ivy League Universities he attended, though less as a devastating critique than as a primer whose unwritten moral is "we can do better".
Obama is the incarnation of the Ivy League cult of smartness that rules the American media and which gave us the successful 1990s presidency of Bill Clinton. He is the roommate that every upper-professional-class mother imagines that her son might have at Harvard. Obama's prickly attitude towards liberals stems in part from an intellectual preference for the cool style of JFK's brain-trust. He has only disdain for sentimental, folk-singing liberalism, whose sins include condescension and middle classism, and the hairy acid freak-out that followed. Yet the animus behind his dislike for his fellow liberals is not intellectual or aesthetic but deeply personal.
Dreams From My Father reads at times as a silky, sophisticated tantrum against the footloose white mother who dragged him off to Indonesia, and then sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents while she followed her bliss. Her grown-up son would gain his preferred form of revenge by a self-willed leap into blackness though which he would seek to erase all but the bare biological facts of his mother's contribution to his genotype. In her son's writing, Stanley Ann Dunham appears to be a perfect specimen of a kind of sentimental American liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s. Everything about his mother's attractions and affinities makes her son feel sick, from her liking for the Marcel Camus film Black Orpheus, which the young Obama sees as the inspiration for the crypto-racist erotics of her attraction to black men, to her self-chosen status as "a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism", a description that comes uncomfortably close to defining Obama's most enthusiastic base of support during his campaign for presidency.
Perhaps Obama's most thorough and surprising victory during his first term in office was his rout of the liberals who had so fiercely opposed George Bush. Obama shared his grass-roots supporters' disdain for Bush's intelligence, but he never shared their feverish conviction that global warming, Guantanamo Bay or American troops being shipped home in body bags must be stopped at any cost. Obama doesn't oppose things at any cost. He opposes things with costs that are too high. He is a pragmatist with liberal tendencies who is interested in wielding power rather than increasing his merit in the world to come.
Obama undercut and demoralised his liberal base at every turn, while forcing liberal barons in Congress to bow to his executive authority. He shovelled out hundreds of billions of dollars to save the feckless banks, smoothly sacrificed the "public option" in the healthcare-reform debate, gave barely a nod to the global-warming crusade, and made the Democratic Party sign on to a pointless war in Afghanistan. He didn't withdraw the troops from Iraq in six months. The foreign policy of Obama's first year was in most ways a continuation of George Bush's second term, the major differences being that Obama started off softer and wound up tougher. He started the year by personally ordering rifle fire on three teenage hostage-takers off the coast of Somalia, and ended it by targeting the leadership of al Qa'eda in Yemen in a drone strike that he allegedly ordered directly from the White House. He was far less solicitous of the North Koreans than Condoleezza Rice. Guantanamo Bay is still open.
The president showed no great public enthusiasm for the revolt of the Iranian people against a murderous theocracy. A central tenet of Obama's foreign policy had been the benefits that would flow from a policy of American engagement with a regime that, at least in the administration's public statements, was held to incarnate the popular will of the Iranian people. The regime dismissed Obama's attempts at dialogue and continued building centrifuges and nuclear-enrichment facilities, only to find itself rejected at the ballot box and confronted by angry protesters in the streets.
While it is possible to argue that Obama's policy of engagement helped create a political space in which protesters could oppose the regime without seeming like instruments of the West, that was hardly the president's intention. Obama's flattery of the mullahs in Tehran seemed singularly tone-deaf, while his model of cool, interests-based diplomacy left the United States struggling to catch up to events. The protesters, who had interrupted the president's programme of dialogue with their unlicensed passion for democratic ideas, were greeted by the White House as an inconvenience. America would "bear witness" to their sacrifice while continuing to hope that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would return their phone calls. The fact that the President of the United States was not particularly interested in engaging with protesters in the streets was not lost on those Iranians who chanted slogans against the regime and called for Obama to take sides. The preference for pragmatism over idealism that defined the president's approach to Iran made the US seem passive and out of touch.
Obama hung both sides out to dry in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not because he was a callow dreamer, as both Israeli and Palestinian propagandists suggested, but because both sides had put their long-term conflict above his short-term political interests. Benjamin Netanyahu made the president look bad and was shut out of the White House. When Obama finally agreed to see him, it was on the condition that the Israeli prime minister be hustled into the White House at night in an unmarked van with no photographers present. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas annoyed Obama by assuming that he would get the fruits of negotiation delivered to him on a platter and was forced to sit with Netanyahu at UN headquarters in New York for a photo op.
At home, Obama unhesitatingly used economic catastrophe to his political benefit, making himself the sun around which all other planets revolve. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are rich because Barack Obama decided that they could become rich. The collapse of the American auto industry and the sharp decline in world trade has made a large part of the domestic manufacturing sector dependent on Washington, too. The GM plant in Kansas City is running a third shift because Obama's experts decided that it would be a good idea. The partial collapse of large sectors of the American economy has deprived Obama's political opponents of oxygen; the only people who dare to oppose Obama are outsiders with no stake in the survival of the current system. The complete outsider of 2007 has become the ultimate insider in 2009, a year in which being an insider meant the difference between Goldman Sachs-style riches and GM-style failure.
The discomfort inspired by Obama on the right is symbolised by the loonies who question the authenticity of his birth certificate and who insist that the former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers is the true author of Obama's autobiography. The idea that the man behind the fiction is a secret radical bent on the destruction of the American way of life shows the limits of the right-wing imagination, yet they are right to see that there is something radical in the extent to which the president invented his adult self through narrative devices intended to make the upsetting details of his upbringing cohere. The result is a personality that can seem abstract, and sometimes forced. He is a black community organiser from Chicago whose practised golf swing is a reminder that his grandmother was a white bank executive from Hawaii.
The drama of Barack Obama's parentage is a reminder that the greatest American presidents of recent years have in effect been fatherless men. Where Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton disowned their fathers and loved their mothers, Obama rejected his white liberal mother because of her hatred of power, a characteristic that struck him as naive and contemptible. "Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse," Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, the autobiography in which he invented the literary character that he would inhabit for the rest of his life. "Guilt is a luxury that only foreigners can afford," her Indonesian husband Lolo responded. In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Lolo takes his stepson out into the backyard of his small house in Jakarta and tells him to put on boxing gloves and fight. Obama asks Lolo if he has ever seen anyone killed, and Lolo says yes.
"Why was the man killed? The one you saw?" Obama asks "Because he was weak," Lolo answers. Obama identifies with Lolo and his Nigerian father because they are strong and understand power in a way that his liberal mother does not. Yet beneath his psychic armour is a child who was abandoned by both his parents and who has taken refuge as an adult in a combination of wilful abstraction and emotional detachment that seems intended to convey the impression that he is the reliable grown-up in the room.
That Obama seems cranky and humourless at times is a reminder of the burden that the never-ending rounds of meetings and receptions must place on a man who by temperament is clearly a loner. For better or worse, the aura of cool has worn off and been replaced by the image of a big-eared buzz-cut guy in a black tuxedo whose smile is often cranked up to the uncomfortable voltage usually reserved for fraternity pledges and missionaries. Nothing he says seems all that lyrical or memorable any more. The fact that the once-cool-and-youthful president often seems like a stiff is a symptom of the pressures of the office and a reflection of the speed of the American celebrity cycle. It is also a reminder that Obama was never a sports hero, pop star, or talk-show wit. He was a law professor at the University of Chicago who looked cool by comparison with George Bush and John McCain.
Like the hero of any great romantic novel, Obama is an outsider who both sees through and embodies the spirit of his age. He is a rationalist who uses his idealism in a pragmatic way, to set limits within which he can operate. Yet there is something stilted about Obama that prevents him from connecting with the non-American part of the world in the way that his admirers expected. He lacks the common touch, in part because he is the president of the richest country in the world. It is also a fact that the self-conscious literary construction of his adult self makes it hard for him to speak directly from his experience the way that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did. Who is he, exactly? His emphasis on rationalism and his disdain for his mother's brand of sentimental liberalism deprives him of public language that he might use to emotionally connect to the children of the crowded cities of the third world, even though he lived in Jakarta as a child. He has instead become the more normative version of himself that he so decisively rejected in his first autobiography - a pampered American private-school boy who was raised by his wealthy white grandparents in Hawaii, then went to Columbia and Harvard.
Sooner or later, of course, events will take over, and Obama will be confronted by an unwanted choice that will define his presidency. Iran will announce it has the bomb. There will be an attack with massive casualties in a major American city. The world economy will go into another tailspin, and unemployment in the US will hit 15 per cent. Pakistan will fall apart and a nuclear weapon will wind up in the hands of al Qa'eda. Iraq will disintegrate in a civil war. Not all of these things will happen, but one of them - or some equivalent disaster not of his making, one that defies the wisdom of his experts - probably will.
Barack Obama knows that the splintering and collapse of a global order founded on American military and commercial power would be a disaster for everyone in a world where Chinese leadership, or the future hegemony of the European Union or the UN, are illusions. He knows that most of the rest of the world would gladly see America fail in each and every one of its endeavours - if it were not for the darkness that would follow. The knowledge that the president has gained of the precarious balance between the global resentment of America and the global reliance on American power is the most important legacy of his first year in office. It is surely not too hopeful to imagine that he will use that knowledge wisely.
David Samuels is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and a regular contributor to the New Yorker.