I went to see Barack Obama speak in New York, in spring 2007, at a preliminary ‘sounding’ for donors and assorted others. This was a few weeks after he announced his candidacy, and the audience of a hundred or so, in a spacious Upper West Side apartment, were brought in close enough to let everyone have a glimpse. Impartial curiosity was the mood about Obama then. There was no fuss at his entrance; he shook a few hands, chatted with the friendly strangers, and stayed within himself. He talked for something under half an hour, and what we heard was an attitude more than a programme.
It was a bad time, he said. We had to get the country going in the right direction. The wars were taking a heavy toll and drawing us away from our responsibilities towards each other. He spoke fluently and agreeably, without passion. George W. Bush had lately ignored the advice of the Baker Commission to withdraw from Iraq, and had ordered the ‘surge’ of additional troops headed by General Petraeus; there was a feeling close to despair among the arts and media crowd in the room, but Obama mentioned none of that: you might have thought the year was 1992 and his opponent George H.W. Bush. What struck me was his proficiency at blending in. Yet his sense of crisis was impersonal and oddly minimal. A woman with a worried look said afterwards: ‘I’m not sure he’s what we need.’
The glamorous Obama who emerged in 2008 – the greetings to whole cities with a celebrity shout, ‘Hello, Miami!’, the faithful cry of ‘Fired up, ready to go!’: none of this seemed to fit the man we heard, though his 2004 convention address had given hints of another side that accounted for the loyalty of his warmer enthusiasts. But as it has fallen out, most of his presidency has been conducted in the style of that living-room talk. Ceremonial speeches like the State of the Union or the occasional solemn bulletins from the Oval Office or orations such as he offered after the Tucson shootings in 2011 have marked episodic returns to the grand style, but when you hear those speeches you wonder what office he thinks he occupies, and in what country. The dignified and commanding presentation suits a theatrical impulse that lies deep in Obama’s idea of his proper powers – an impulse he has always recognised, which, at most times in his life, he has taken great care to repress.
One reward of David Maraniss’s biography of Obama’s first 27 years is that it confirms a hunch about Obama’s self-invention.[*] His vagabond life with a bohemian intellectual mother, and the charismatic and reckless father who went back to Africa, belong to an early childhood that the Maraniss book recalls in detail and others have explored too, but those years explain less than has been supposed. Young Barack was always cared for, and from the age of ten, his education saw a passage with apparent ease through elite institutions. The Punahou school in Hawaii is one of the top preparatory schools in the United States, Occidental College in Southern California is a small liberal arts school of high quality, and for his last two years Obama transferred to Columbia. By the age of 22 his ambition encompassed the presidency – a hope that emerged with matter-of-fact seriousness in a conversation with a New York friend. During his last year at Columbia, and at a low-level corporate job that followed, Obama brooded over his need to acquire a black identity – a sign was the copy of Ellison’s Invisible Man which he took with him everywhere. He had never thought of himself as black before. The two girlfriends of those years whom Maraniss has traced, and an unnamed third in his first year in Chicago, were white, and so were many of his friends.
Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father condensed several partners into one, and offered a scene of mutual alienation between the hero and his girlfriend over divided reactions to a play about black Americans. Here, Maraniss indicates, an incident from another time and place, with another person, was transferred for the sake of narrative economy. It went down more easily to have his temporary estrangement from white society follow a single arc with a single romantic foil. More generally, the data of Obama’s early years, Maraniss has found, are so stretched and tweaked in his memoir, the incidents and characters so altered and transposed that Dreams from My Father is best thought of as a ‘work of literature’ rather than personal history.
Dreams employed very permissively a technique the literary theorist Michael André Bernstein has called ‘backshadowing’: a device of conventional narrative whereby significant moments, leading to a climax or a large recognition, are inserted with teleological pointers at early stages of the plot. History, in this way, is abridged and partly falsified to support the claims of the author’s later self. The result awards the wishful power of memory a retroactive triumph over the chaotic particulars of life. Dreams showed a young Obama stranded and perplexed by his racial identity as early as Punahou. It suggested a proneness to feelings of oppression that went unremarked by his friends in the popular crowd that swam, surfed and partied together, chatted up girls, smoked marijuana, played or watched basketball. But it now appears the aloof and ironic hero portrayed in Dreams was a literary creation. Of course, agonising doubt is good for an identity memoir. So is a conversion of some sort. So is heroic development along the lines of one reiterated motive. Obama’s memoir was careful to satisfy these desiderata. His public character seems to have begun to correspond to the fictive persona only in his late twenties.
Such puzzles are commonplace, indeed conventional, in dealing with one kind of writing, but in Obama’s case they raise certain questions. It is dangerous for a person thinking of his own life (as distinct from an author thinking of his hero’s life) to regard every action as significant. It means that you consider yourself an embodiment of a symbolic purpose which floats free of the content of actions; a purpose that requires any disturbing break to be viewed in the light of an as yet undisclosed terminus.
Obama decided when young to offset the anxieties of mixed identity by seeing himself as a lucky convergence of opposite forces and tendencies: ‘Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me… . The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation is to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.’ So the stranger and outsider becomes in America the axial personality through whom all the cross-currents of national character must flow. It is a telling fantasy. As president of the United States, Obama has felt that his role is to reflect the presence of all points of view and to reject none. He finally becomes a fighter, or rather, talks in the tones of a fighter, when he can subject the most nebulous of foes to a stern rebuke. He is against selfishness, against ‘what is not best in us’ and so on.
The invention of composite characters in his autobiography – a practice shown by Maraniss to be much broader than the passing disclaimer in Dreams implied – might seem a trivial and a wholly literary indulgence. Why does it leave a queasy sensation? ‘There are a few instances,’ Maraniss notes, ‘where black figures in the book have characteristics and histories that Obama took from white friends.’ Why would he do that? Something about those people made their lives more appropriate to the demands of identity if they were seen to be black. To take aesthetic licence this far, in order to enforce a cultural lesson, involves the author in a trespass against reality and the truth of experience. It is done for convenience but the cost is high in indulged fantasy. You construct a healthy identity in memory by falsifying the identities of life.
Maraniss’s findings about Dreams from My Father throw considerable light on one aspect of Obama’s public presentation since 2009. I mean his copious reliance on cliché. He knows a cliché when he speaks it. He uses it to accommodate an imagined audience, with a condescension he thinks the audience does not detect. But this is a practice that cuts against genuine respect. The consequence, for his political stance, is an unanchored populism, a plea for unity among many constituencies without a footing in one. Obama’s gambit has been to carry himself as if, since he comes from everywhere, and every class and tradition flows through him, he can never be accused of being parochial, marginal or the tool of special interests.
On 14 June, the president delivered in Ohio, a contested state, a long campaign speech on the economy and society of the United States. There were some solid shots at Mitt Romney, and an attempt to meet the prejudice of Republicans without wheedling:
I don’t believe that we should be in the business of helping people who refuse to help themselves. But I do share the belief of our first Republican president, from my home state – Abraham Lincoln – that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.
So far, an attractive call for common sense. You might think the next paragraph would go after the wildness of the Tea Party’s assumption that we are better off without any government except men with guns: the police and the armed forces. But Obama turned instead to an appeal more ecumenical and saccharine:
That’s how we built this country – together. We constructed railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. We did those things together. We sent my grandfather’s generation to college on the GI Bill – together. We instituted a minimum wage and rules that protected people’s bank deposits – together. Together, we touched the surface of the Moon, unlocked the mystery of the atom, connected the world through our own science and imagination. We haven’t done these things as Democrats or Republicans. We’ve done them as Americans.
Well, wait a minute, no: we didn’t unlock the mystery of the atom together. A few scientists did it, on secret government subsidy. An honest politician does not have to give a voice to such demurs, but he should not routinely repeat half-truths that are functional lies. Yet Obama does this all the time – as when he says that the enemy we are fighting throughout the Arab world is named al-Qaida.
Madmen and power-maddened politicians easily fall into the illusion Freud described as ‘the omnipotence of thoughts’. They imagine that their wishes, or words that embody wishes, become deeds by virtue of being spoken by themselves.
Obama has a harder time than any sane politician I have ever heard in admitting that his words are only words. He told a teacher once that words were the most dangerous power in the world; he seems to have meant they were the most powerful things. But to speak words that carry a distinct meaning on certain subjects, and then not to back them by deeds, is weaker than saying nothing. Obama, however, has seen himself all along not mainly as a politician but rather as a man of genius. His calling is to unite and reconcile opposites, as only genius can.
He has often echoed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the canonical American speech of reconciliation. It has not occurred to him that our time may be more suited to the House Divided speech, in which Lincoln in 1858 showed why the slavery question was so important it might make the two sides irreconcilable. Obama’s many House United speeches, by contrast, are always about unity for its own sake – a curious idea. Unity for its own sake will capture neither votes nor lasting loyalty among people who crave an explanation of the elements of political right and wrong. Obama likes to say that the truth always lies somewhere ‘in between’. Fair enough at first glance. A tenable compromise between obdurate persons or opposite forces generally lies somewhere in between. But truth is different surely, truth occurs as it occurs, and often one finds it at the extremes.
Obama sees himself as the coolest head, the most reasonable listener, the practical man in a world of theorists and fanatics, but none of these traits qualifies one person to render alone a decision that twelve could only with difficulty make in good conscience. There is a point, after all, where messianic fervour and the love of executive power may converge. In commandeering the drone assassinations in Pakistan, Obama has taken on himself to judge without legal process and to kill with impunity persons he thinks ought to die. This fact we learned only recently and are still digesting. When it comes to the president’s emergency measures, his admirers, who normally speak of his ‘pragmatism’, switch to a different register. They mention Augustine and Aquinas and say the president has been studying just-war theory. Yet the difference between moral right and political expedience is not overcome by a shift of gears from the most secular of philosophies to the most theologically saturated. By a more general decree of the president, a civilian Afghan male of fighting age who is killed by a drone aimed at a terrorist is now himself also counted as a terrorist. The reason is that the identity of terrorists is well known by all natives, and the innocent avoid their company. This juggling, as several commentators have remarked, takes us back to the days of the Vietnam body counts, whose method Sartre described with summary accuracy: ‘A dead Vietnamese is a Viet Cong.’
And yet there is no alternative to Obama. Supporters who realise that he is not what he seemed in 2008 are reduced to saying (as two of them, a historian and a lawyer, said to me separately in the last few days): ‘He’s not a good president, and doesn’t deserve to be re-elected, but he must be re-elected.’ The short name for the reason is Mitt Romney, the longer and truer name is what the Republican Party has become. It is the party of wars, prisons and the ever expanding riches of the very rich. Romney’s foreign policy advisers are graduates of the workshop of Dick Cheney and the various American outworks of the Likud or the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. These people – including Cofer Black, Michael Chertoff, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor – have their eyes on a goal beyond victory in Syria and Iran: they look forward to a militarised approach to Russia and China. As for Romney’s economic ideas, every backward step towards the finance economy of 1920 which Obama has worked halfheartedly to impede, Romney will push to achieve with the greatest vigour. Even if he were otherwise disposed, the ideology of his party commits him to policies of a regressive order that will surpass Reagan.
The Obama presidency has gone far to complete the destruction of New Deal politics which began when Bill Clinton brought Wall Street into the White House. The right won the political wars of the last two generations, the left won the culture wars, and we are now in a position to measure the gain and loss. On the one hand, greater tolerance of mixed marriages, the enforced habit of not showing race prejudice in public, gay rights. On the other hand, most Americans today with modest means and a modest chance in life are swayed by the gambling ethic: they speak in the commercial patois – which many of their grandparents would have scorned – of the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ and the ‘American dream’. Obama did nothing to change this. He tried to wield the language of the dream more effectively than his opponents: a gambit that can now be seen to have failed.
In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes has a portrait of Woodrow Wilson at Versailles that has stayed in my mind:
The president was not a hero or a prophet; he was not even a philosopher; but a generously intentioned man, with many of the weaknesses of other human beings, and lacking that dominating intellectual equipment which would have been necessary to cope with the subtle and dangerous spellbinders whom a tremendous clash of forces and personalities had brought to the top as triumphant masters in the swift game of give and take, face to face in council – a game of which he had no experience at all … It was commonly believed at the commencement of [the negotiations] that the president had thought out, with the aid of a large body of advisers, a comprehensive scheme … But in fact the president had thought out nothing; when it came to practice his ideas were nebulous and incomplete. He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House.
Another peace president who became a war president – but a larger affinity may be noticed. Wilson and Obama share an odd quirk of the national character, a blend of high resolve and extreme detachment, romantic idealism and an almost opaque unconcern with follow-through.
On Iran, for now, Obama has not joined the sabre-rattling, but his policy appears to be regime change, and he has done little to calm the voices in the Israel lobby and Congress who clamour for stiffer sanctions and will soon cry for blockade and war. He has not found the time or the wit to offer an explanation that would indicate the good sense of peace – in case the prospects grow brighter in the current negotiations. He has pledged to do whatever it takes to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon, and has subscribed to the Netanyahu equation: too far on the road to a weapon is the same as having a weapon. Quite consistently, in his presidency, Obama’s method of stopping a measure, a tendency or a worldly development he opposes has not been to stand in its way but to try to slow it down. Indeed, this is almost his only tactic, as if he believed you could stop a train from arriving at the wrong terminus by padding the railcars with very good shock absorbers. His present strategy is to continue slowly towards war with Iran, but not be seen to have arrived there by November.
[*] Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (Atlantic, 643 pp., £25, June, 978 1 84887 279 0).