Article — From the September 2012 issue

The Changeling

The content of Obama’s character

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Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for me, for you, for all of us? An educated, intelligent man, he is the very model of the roommate that every good liberal parent in Park Slope or Santa Monica prays that their son might bring home from college. He is proof of how it is possible to live the good life in America without ceasing to be a good person. Intimately acquainted with ambivalence, he pulled the trigger on Osama bin Laden while bringing our boys home from the deserts of Iraq. The quasi-accidental father of quasi-universal health care and the sly Lincoln of gay marriage, he cleaned up a decade’s worth of deep doo-doo left behind by George W. Bush.

A second term will cost money, of course. It will test him in new ways, and will test the rest of us, too. On January 17 at 11:10 a.m., he entered the White House’s State Dining Room with a cheery “Hello, everybody!” for old friends like GE’s Jeffrey Immelt; Penny Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune and funder of his early campaigns; AOL’s Steve Case; Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg; and other members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness: luminous consumers of new information who never have to worry about meeting their mortgage payments.

Every day, it seems, brings another uneasy reminder of where he stands, a place that might induce vertigo in a less controlled and confident man. Only a tightrope walker with an extraordinary gift for language could continue to keep his balance above the deep and ever-widening divide that separates the best and the brightest from the invisible majority. That evening, for example, he enjoyed a birthday dinner for Michelle at BLT Steak in Washington—famous for serving the Obama burger ($28 for 8 ounces of Kobe beef with cheddar, bacon, burnt-tomato ketchup, and spicy scallion mustard), a rich man’s Big Mac—and two days later sent a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate extending the national emergency with respect to terrorists who threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process, a legal fiction that is part of the ever expanding extralegal authority that allows the President to order wiretaps, maintain indefinite detentions, and sign off on drone attacks to kill those deemed enemies of the state—a category that includes U.S. citizens.

A former president of the Harvard Law Review and professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, he is a natural-born writer who prides himself on his ability to narrate the patchwork of his own life and the lives of others without resorting to heroism or cheap sentimentality. While he may believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, he is also aware that his place in history is bound up in the complex dialectical movement of historical change—an awareness that accounts for the observer position that he has appeared to occupy throughout most of his term in the White House. As the first American president who is not a white male, he speaks for an audience that has been fundamentally altered by that fact alone—a shift that has more to do with us than with him.

By 11:53 a.m. on the morning of January 19, in advance of four scheduled fund-raisers in New York City, his motorcade is headed toward I-4 in Orlando and then on to “Main Street, U.S.A.,” which has been emptied of people. Beneath a cloudless sky he takes the stage, with Cinderella’s castle looming above, and addresses himself to about a hundred local politicians, union members, and Disney employees. “It’s always nice to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me,” the President says, obviously referring to Mickey Mouse, before outlining a series of new travel and tourism initiatives. Then it’s back to Air Force One, which takes him once again to New York, for another bite of the Big Apple—another chunk of the nearly one billion dollars he must raise by Election Day.

That those who pay the piper call the tune is no more or less a truism than the idea that Barack Hussein Obama is, as he likes to call himself in his fund-raising speeches, president of all the people, which means that he is always talking to both groups at once—the rich people who pay for his campaigns and the mass electorate that is parsed and targeted by pollsters. His ability to select the right bits and pieces of his colorful past and construct a mosaic that makes sense to the many people who have never been anywhere near Kenya or Indonesia, or even Hawaii, is a tribute to his glibness. The private Obama, as he has explained in different keys to different audiences throughout his life, is the son of a Kenyan father he hardly knew and a teenage white do-gooder mother whose attraction to the black people in Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus gave him the willies, who loved him deeply, in her way, and to whom he seems to have been truly reconciled only after she died. According to the cruel but accurate emotional logic that children often use in such situations, she deprived him of a father not once but twice. Living in Hawaii with his white grandparents, he played basketball and did bong hits and listened to Stevie Wonder and then went off to college. Later, in New York, he had literary, emotionally perceptive white girlfriends, the last of whom was not in any way surprised when he decided in his twenties to live out the historical experience of American blackness. The narrative he constructed for his life, which was founded in part on the thesis that race was a defining part of his identity, in his own mind and in the minds of others, required extraordinary sensitivity, imagination, and daring. What possibilities that narrative included and what it foreclosed for the rest of us are still puzzlingly unclear.

When the financial crisis broke, he panicked and continued to shovel billions of dollars at the same institutions that caused the collapse, allowing their executives to walk away with millions of dollars as their employees were laid off and their firms went bust. In a moment when addressing the cancer of hyperinequality in America was possible, he left tax rates the same for the higher brackets—save for a minor increase in the Medicare tax on the very wealthy to help cover the cost of a health-care-reform plan tailored to the needs of large pharmaceutical companies. Since the panic subsided, he has failed to set out any kind of vision for what a more equal and more productive America might look like. Which suggests, in turn, that the sinuous arabesques linking Obama’s personal and political selves make it hard for their author to access the blunter historical narratives that have defined American presidencies: big-ticket moments like the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Civil Rights Act.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His essay “Wild Things” appeared in the June issue.

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