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.
To say that Barack Obama is a self-invented character like the Benjamin Franklin of his autobiography or the Frederick Douglass of his autobiography or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, or Fitzgerald himself, is only to say that he is a modern example of a defining American type—leaving open the question of why we chose a representative of that type to serve as our president at this particular moment in time. He uses words that call attention to the desire of his audience to feel part of a collective in search of something better without referring in any tangible way to the real-world problems faced by any specific class, gender, or race. As a political actor, he is the product of the shidduch made in the early 1990s by Bill Clinton between the “centrist” wing of the tottering Democratic Party and that forward-looking segment of Wall Street that was interested in speeding up the movement of what it called global capital. A bit of a scold, the President also enjoys the perks of his position—he vacations on Martha’s Vineyard and believes in some real measure in the theory of “meritocracy” that his funders have developed to justify their astounding good fortune.
Obama’s personality and talents make it easy for him to usher in modest changes while raising very large amounts of money from very rich people. It is no secret that the President of the United States spends a great deal of his time asking for money, a process that has continued since the day in 2007 that he first officially announced his intention to be president. Day after day, month after month, and year after year, Obama cemented his place as the most successful political fund-raiser in American history. One obvious quid pro quo that his donors received in return is his help in gutting the system of checks and balances that sought to restrict the influence of money in politics. In order to raise and spend nearly $750 million on his 2008 campaign, Obama reneged on his promise to accept public funding—blowing the wheels off a shaky system of public financing that is now effectively defunct. The more money he spends this year, the less the toothless watchdogs matter, and the faster the influence of private money on the American political system will grow, a development that is sure to be an important part of his legacy.
In an effort to better understand the link between the protagonist of Obama’s books and the skilled politician who is running for a second term as president, I attended several fund-raising events in New York as Obama was gearing up for his reelection campaign. First on my list was an event on January 19 at a four-star restaurant on Park Avenue called Daniel, where approximately one hundred supporters were invited to pay a minimum of $5,000 each to eat hors d’oeuvres with the President—a haul of about $500,000. A second event was scheduled for an adjoining room at the same restaurant, where an estimated sixty guests would pay a minimum of $15,000 each, for an additional $900,000. Dinner later that evening at the apartment of the film director Spike Lee would include forty-five guests, who would be treated to the same canned remarks in a more luxurious setting, at $35,800 a head. For a nightcap, the President would hit the Apollo Theater for a gala concert for 1,400 guests, featuring the performers Al Green and India.Arie, which at an average of $200 a pop would bring the President slightly more than $3 million on the day.
Standing in the security line that wraps around the corner from Daniel, a solid-looking establishment where the words relais gourmand are carved into the gray Park Avenue stone, are premier members of the American electorate—the wealthy citizens who select the candidates the rest of us vote for. The cost of this level of participation in our political system, which starts at only $5,000, qualifies these donors as guppies, human placeholders in the deregulated food chain that provides campaigns with cash. Swimming above the guppies are the bundlers, who gather up fifty or a hundred $5,000 checks and receive due credit for a quarter or a half million dollars in donations.
The guppies are excited to see their President in the flesh. “He’s intelligent and capable,” says one of them, whose name I chose not to solicit for fear of having my ticket to the event, which I obtained at the heavily discounted cost of $2,500, revoked. “I wrote a million letters.” Her 2012 women for obama button is attached to the shawl collar of her fancy, black, middle-aged-lady coat, and any nips and tucks to her eyes are hidden behind an oversize pair of gold-rimmed Jackie O aviators. Her husband, in a green-and-gold paisley scarf and trench-gray wool cap, is proud of her moxie. His law firm, which he would prefer that I didn’t mention, represents a well-known investment bank, which he would also prefer that I didn’t mention. Through the informal alchemy of such connections, the political affinities of individuals and the direct interests of corporate employers are bound together into packets of meaningful heft. The receptions today at Daniel, he tells me, are for, respectively, partners at major New York law firms and Jews concerned about the state of the President’s affections for Israel—categories that, taken together, describe nearly every person on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who isn’t a rock-ribbed Republican.
If you live on the Upper East Side, you also know that Daniel, with its lovely flower arrangements, cleverly constructed but classic hors d’oeuvres, and ornate moldings in buttery white, strikes just the right balance for the neighborhood—somewhere between a bank vault and a bordello. The kid who has been pressed into service at the entryway is new to this kind of event. “Lawyers or . . . ,” he stammers politely as I approach, searching for the proper code word. “Jews,” I answer, earning a grateful smile.
Inside, Jewish guppies sip golden Meursault and Syrah from flights of plastic cups on silver trays. Elegant white flowers and photo books decorate the walls. A waiter offers me a healthy smidgen of tuna tartare. “We cured it in vodka and beets and added a little bit of horseradish,” he explains, with educated pride. I take a seat at a table next to Bernice Manocherian, who was once married to a founder of one of New York’s wealthier real estate dynasties and is a former president of AIPAC—and also falsely rumored on left-wing message boards to be the sister of Democratic House whip Steny Hoyer, a claim that is often harped upon by commentors who appear to buy into AIPAC’s own sense of itself as the secret nerve center of a shadowy and powerful pro-Zionist lobby.
Seated to my left is the former mayor of New York, Edward I. Koch, whose squawky, comical little-guy persona belies the fact that he is over six feet tall, a tough political animal who earned two battle stars as an infantryman with the 104th in France and led New York City from the brink of bankruptcy. We talk for a while about the corruption scandals that shook his mayoralty and the pressures exerted on any executive by wealthy constituents. If anyone understands the bald realities of political physics, it’s Ed Koch, a staunch supporter of Israel who recently yanked Obama’s chain by suggesting, right before an off-year election to fill Anthony Weiner’s empty congressional seat, that the President was planning to sell Israel out to its enemies, a charge that resulted in a panicked round of Koch-courting by the White House. Obama’s eloquence, he says, reminds him a bit of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate whose wonderfully literate speeches first got Koch interested in public life.
“How do you think Stevenson would have done as president?” I ask him. He pulls a face. “Awful,” he answers. “Terrible.”
To our right is another outer-borough New York brute, the film mogul Harvey Weinstein, of Miramax, his head thrown back and his luxuriant black chest hair curling out of the open collar of a bright white shirt as he awaits the arrival of the golden-tongued changeling who embodies the modern-day contradictions and aspirations of the habitués of Daniel.
At 5:04, the President of the United States walks in and takes up a microphone at the front of the room, two tables away from where I am sitting, which is as close as I imagine I am likely to get to him. He is thinner than I pictured him, and he projects an oddly Javanese sense of inner-directed calm. “Thank you! Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody,” he says, before turning to a well-tailored variation on the standard joke he makes to put his audiences at ease. “As I look around the room, I’ve got people who’ve supported me when nobody could pronounce my name,” he says, as the crowd laughs. “In fact, I’ve got a couple people here who supported me when I was running for the state senate,” he adds, with a nod toward the heavyweight-champion-level bundler who is seated directly behind me, the beaming Alan Solow. A partner specializing in bankruptcy work at DLA Piper, a global practice that employs 4,200 lawyers across 77 offices in 31 countries, Solow could probably fund a third or at least an eighth of a modern presidential campaign strictly through internal corporate email; as of this writing DLA Piper is the third-largest listed address for contributors to Obama’s reelection campaign, after the University of California (second) and Microsoft.
Three years into his presidency, Obama still feels obliged to reassure his financial backers and the rest of us about his indelible otherness with the opening joke about the foreignness of his name, which is also a rhetorical stand-in for his race. Because he has so thoroughly processed these traits and their meaning, he is able to reassure his listeners while remaining aware that the effort is necessary. “I also want to give a special shout-out to one of the finest mayors that this city has ever had, Ed Koch,” he says. The old man grimaces. At eighty-seven, he can still take Obama, which bodes ill, his expression suggests, for the future of the nation.
Undeterred, the man at the podium unspools the pitch that will be refined until Election Day. So far, the method is to emphasize how much was wrong with America when he took office. “And what we’ve been able to do, I think, over the last three years is to not only avert a Great Depression, not only save an auto industry,” he continues, “we were able to decimate Al Qaeda; we were able to beef up what we were doing in Afghanistan in a way that now allows us to take a transition and start bringing our troops home.” His delicate language offends no one; with his reasonable professorial affect, his voice is one level warmer than room tone. America is the “sole indispensable power,” its aim to act in concert with others to “ensure that the international rules of the road are followed.” His mind naturally seeks to take univalent explanations, play with them until they approach paradox, then dissolve the seeming contradictions of the particular in the universal.
The President says he is devoted to Israel’s security and utterly opposed to Iranian nuclear weapons while also opposed to the slaughter in Syria—positions shared by every person in the room, though it is hard to say how his present policies will achieve these goals, an objection of which Obama seems to be entirely aware. “Iran still has not made the right choice in terms of taking a path that would allow it to rejoin the community of nations and set aside its nuclear ambitions,” he says smoothly. “And, obviously, we still have not made the kind of progress that I would have liked to have seen when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians—a peace, by the way, that I believe is not just good for the Palestinians but is profoundly in the strategic interest of Israel.” Clarity about moral principles and vagueness about the means with which they might be achieved opens up a space that he believes will work to his advantage when combined with the hard facts of American economic and military power: Whatever you think of me and my intentions, the back-and-forth movement of his rhetoric suggests, you know that I am still capable of an October surprise.
“You’re pitching and I’m catching,” the President instructs, as the press is ushered out and the floor is opened for questions. With reporters gone, the room suddenly feels more intimate. I am struck by how movie-actor pretty he is, rail thin, with his coffee-colored skin and dark eyes. The funny balance in him of a chain-smoker’s repressed anxiety and a surface ease lends his features an East Asian quality. He looks like a taller, better-fed version of U Thant, the elegant Burmese politician who served as secretary-general of the U.N. back in JFK’s time. There are also some superficial similarities with JFK, of course—skinny and ambitious, they both attended Harvard, wrote bestselling books, and later became junior members of the U.S. Congress, where they did little before deciding to run for president, coolly knocking off the party-establishment candidate.
“They are seeing their inflation rate jump ten, fifteen percent and their currency is plummeting,” he says, in response to a question from the audience. “I think they understand the military option is on the table.” And then he pulls back. “This is not an easy issue, though,” he says, in his reasonable tone. “Even Netanyahu’s government realizes this is not a plant in the middle of the desert you can go and knock out.”
In the safety of a fancy restaurant in Manhattan, before an audience of moneyed liberal Jewish supporters of Israel, the President just blinked. And maybe blinking is the right thing to do. The next question comes from attorney Victor Kovner, who is here representing the Upper West Side of thirty years ago. He is concerned about the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which the President is too smart to try to solve right now, in front of this audience. “It’s vital that there be movement,” Kovner says, in a way that is more plaintive than belligerent. “Most of the Jewish community wants to see movement.”
In Kovner’s New York, an existentially oriented black politician who reads Saul Bellow would have been the perfect man to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But those days are over, and the President doesn’t rise to the bait. “Ultimately, Israel and the Palestinians need to decide this is important to them,” he says sagely. The Israelis and Palestinians will find their way out of their historical morass at a price as yet to be determined for both people. Or maybe not. The last time he seriously messed with that crap, he got his head handed to him by Netanyahu. “I may not be the choice of every Likud member for president of the U.S.,” he says, in response to another question about Israel, drawing laughs from members of the crowd who are eager to demonstrate that they are not Likudniks. “But they will acknowledge when it comes to Israel’s security and cooperation, no one has been better.”
He knows that other people’s public appreciation of his talents is a large part of his power, even though he takes fewer questions from reporters than did his predecessor, who was generally acknowledged to be the least communicative president since Calvin Coolidge. Power is a matter of perception, and being measured against the achievements of the giants of the past bugs him. “What’s this golden age that people are talking about?” he wonders out loud. “Was it the Cold War? Was it Vietnam?” He pauses. Andrew Sullivan writes smart stuff about him. Fareed Zakaria approves of his policies, he plaintively notes. So why isn’t the message getting out? “I was frankly a little stubborn about not going around selling, because I was too busy doing,” he says, when someone asks. A more likely explanation is that he has queered his pitch a little by spending the past five years selling himself to rich Democrats in private living rooms and fancy restaurants like this one.
Harvey Weinstein’s ex-flack, a whiz kid named Matthew Hiltzik, stands up to ask whether there is a particular anecdote the President might offer that would demonstrate his commitment to and understanding of the historical plight of Israelis. “The history of the Jewish experience is so interwoven with the Afro-American experience,” he begins, tying together Bellow and Ralph Ellison in a single package, which both men would have gladly accepted, having been roommates together in upstate New York.
“My best buddy was this camp counselor who was an Israeli,” Obama continues, digging deep. “I remember sitting around the campfire, and him telling me stories about what the kibbutz was like.” There were the Jewish teachers he admired at college and in law school, and “the novelists who helped me think about the immigrant experience.” There was the trip he took with his good friend Elie Wiesel to Buchenwald, the German concentration camp that his great-uncle helped liberate as a soldier during WWII.
He talks long enough that his writerly mind rebels against the question. “It’s like asking me if I have a particular story to tell about the African-American experience,” he says. “It’s part of most American lives. It’s not something separate and apart.” It’s an elegant answer, moving and true—an answer whose profoundest layer of meaning is that Matt Hiltzik can stuff it.
The President lingers casually at the front of the room after question time is over as a school of camera-phone-wielding middle-aged female guppies swims into his ken. He smiles politely for all of them, striking up little conversations, gladly accepting their thanks and support, and recognizing more than one from past events. At a certain point I realize that there are only seven women in the line. I hesitate for a moment and then join them, wondering if a picture with the President is something I will have to pay extra for.
As it also happens, I have come prepared for exactly this possibility with a copy of a thin bookstore-checkout-counter item that I smuggled in past security in a red cloth bag from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. The cover of the work in question, which bears the brave title Un mondo nuovo, measures approximately four inches by six inches and features a photograph of two African women each wearing a bright blue shirt with a red bull’s-eye in the center and the President’s face on it. The publishers of the work have listed the author as “Barack H. Obama” while neglecting to mention the author of the equally long accompanying text—a complaint they ignored in a typically Italian way when my agent brought it to their attention.
Obama’s contribution to the work, a transcript of a speech he gave in Ghana toward the beginning of his presidency, with facing pages in En glish and in an Italian translation, has a few notably striking passages buried amidst the State Department dreck. There is the line about how his grandfather grew up working as a cook for the British in Kenya, and was called “boy” for most of his life. “He was on the periphery of Kenya’s liberation struggles,” he says with a touch of modesty that also shows off his knowledge of history, “but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life,” Obama continues, “colonialism wasn’t simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade. It was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.”
It’s powerful stuff, and it’s probably even more immediate and eternal in Italian: “Mio padre crebbe pascolando le capre in un villaggio minuscolo”—“My father grew up herding goats in a tiny village”—linking a phrase that could have been uttered by a leader of men at the time of Julius Caesar to the vast disjunctions of space and time that most of the rest of the world experienced when it was rudely shoved en masse into the latter half of the twentieth century. Many in the audience in Ghana must have known what it took for the President’s African father to travel the impossible distance from village life to “the American universities where he would come to get an education.” Another U.S. president might have mentioned that the U.S. government helped pay for that education, or that Americans are hospitable and generous people—but Obama himself is proof of all that. The main point, from whatever angle, in his own mind and the minds of his audience that day, was that Barack Obama’s son, bearing his father’s name, was now President of the United States.
The woman ahead of me in line gets her picture taken, and then I am face-to-face with the President. “We wrote a book together,” I say, presenting him with the Italian paperback. He studies it for a second, catching his face and his name on the cover. “Were you the translator?” he asks respectfully. “I wrote the other essay in there,” I say. “It’s a translation of your speech in Ghana, and a thing I wrote about Dreams from My Father and Invisible Man.” He looks at me curiously for a moment, offering nothing.
“Ralph Ellison,” he says, nodding. The room is half empty, but the President of the United States, Barack Obama, is still standing there, one step up from me. It’s a weird effect that power can generate: to simply occupy space, without desiring or needing anything, to simply be. Because his time is infinitely important, he is often free—or, more accurately, obliged—to waste it. The kindest, most considerate attitude for both parties caught together in such a predicament is some mild species of amusement. Behind me are three more guppies with cameras. I point out my name on the title page of the book, and then ask him to sign it for me, which he does. His signature is oddly fanciful—a cartoon, Barney-like “B” poking at a jaunty, smiley-faced “O” with a wispy forelock of hair that could double as an eye with the “m” serving as a mouth and the final “a” flattening out into a straight line that doubles as an outstretched arm pointing the way forward. The image reminds me of Kurt Cobain trying to draw Doonesbury.
I make conversation for another minute while absorbing his contemplative chi, before the Secret Service whisks him away to the lawyers in the Bellecour Room next door. Then it’s on to Spike Lee’s Upper East Side town house, whose walls are covered with photographs of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and African- and African-American–themed art and Joe Louis’s framed boxing shorts. Mariah Carey and her husband, Nick Cannon, are here. Obama says that on his first official date with Michelle, he took her to see Do the Right Thing, a fact he related to the Lees when they hosted his family on Martha’s Vineyard. “You remember what I said?” Spike Lee asks, cracking himself up delivering the line. “I said, ‘Good thing you didn’t choose Driving Miss Daisy.’?” The President then heads in to his familiar message about the “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” “the subsequent months of private-sector job growth,” the health care law, gay rights—and the problems that still lie ahead, like building a competitive twenty-first-century education system, a fair tax code, and a financial structure conducive to economic growth rather than speculation.
The final stop uptown doesn’t mean much financially, with only $280,000 or so on offer. But there will be real people in the seats, and the neighborhood holds memories for the President, who lived in a small apartment not far from the Apollo when he went to Columbia. It’s the first time a sitting President has ever appeared at the Apollo, and people are here to show Barack Obama that they’ve got his back. India.Arie appears dressed all in white, her hair wrapped in a slave head scarf, singing about being able to see the light of day and how it doesn’t cost a thing to smile. “But how crazy is it that it’s Al Green and President Obama,” she wonders before singing her anthem of negritude for Harlem. “Brown skin. Up against my brown skin.” For this audience, the color of Obama’s skin is not a turn-off but a physical claim. “If he were a color he’d be a deep dark forest green,” India.Arie sings. “If he were an animal, he’d be an ass, ’cause he’s so stubborn sometimes. . . . He’s a complicated melody.” It is easy to accept him, and admire him, and be faithful to his semi-elective affinity for their race, because black history is inclusive. If your skin is dark enough, you will experience the same things everyone else goes through, no matter how you choose to define yourself.
The show’s next performer, Al Green, or the Reverend Al Green, as he likes to be called, struts onstage singing “I’m so tired of being alone” and then hikes up the crotch of his trousers to emphasize his cock. Even the way the stage light glints off his black sunglasses signifies that he is a star. As he sings “Let’s Stay Together,” he wills himself into a trance, compelling the audience to join in.
“I’m so in love with you,
“Whatever you want to do,
“Is all right with meeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
He pulls up the sleeves of his gray jacket to show a good five inches of bright-white shirt cuff to the couple making out in front.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with love and happi-ness,” he announces. “Power of love, yea-uh.” The man has work to do here.
“Everybody repeat after me: Barack Obama—Commander-in-Chief.”
The fact is that Al Green likes everything about the man, including the sound of his name: Buh-RACK O-BA-muh, President of the United States of A-me-ric-uh! The Apollo loves Al Green, whose music is the bona-fide sound of coitus. “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats,” the announcer soothes, when the Reverend is done. “The program will continue shortly.”
A little before 10 p.m., the owner of Occidental College’s legendary Mick Jagger impression hits the stage in front of a large outstretched American flag. He thanks India.Arie and the Reverend Al Green before singing a line of “Let’s Stay Together,” delighting the crowd. “I told you I was gonna do it,” he says, directing an insider joke offstage.
“Don’t worry, Rev, I cannot sing like you,” the President says, mixing the informal and formal modes of address and offering a compliment from one showman to another, acknowledging the vanity at the core of their common craft. “I just wanted to show my appreciation.”
There is something special about this event for Obama, which shows up in the way he torques familiar lines, making them shorter and punchier, and a touch more idiomatic. “When you decide to support somebody named Barack Hussein Obama for president, you’re not doing it because you think it’s a cakewalk,” he says—cakewalk being a perfectly good word to use in place of easy and also a word that has a particular resonance for an older black audience. The name of an ancient ragtime step with its roots in slavery days, cakewalk conveys a sense of movement and of foolish pride, as in the “cakewalk strut,” an evolution of the dance. Sitting in the dark of the Apollo, I understand something new about Obama’s relationship to blackness—namely, that the emotion behind his performance of his own identity is entirely authentic, even as he understands race as a cultural construct. There is something wonderfully strange about having a president who can give evidence of functioning on so many levels at once. For a moment I think about whether the people who give money to his campaign are paying for the same rarefied and self-flattering moment of pleasure, or whether he provides subtly different but similarly exclusive moments to different donors.
“You did it because you understood the campaign wasn’t about me,” he says, speaking out into a dark space filled with living people who he recognizes as being like himself, in a dimension that he doesn’t share with the people at Daniel. “It was a vision that was big and compassionate and bold, and it said, In America, if you work hard you’ve got a chance. You got a chance to get ahead,” he says, his voice taking on that folksy edge that during the 2008 campaign made him sound like some nerdy black kid in a sweater-vest imitating Bill Clinton. Maybe it took a while for us to get used to hearing him plain, or maybe he is more confident in himself now, or more confident in his audience. Or maybe this trajectory was alive in his mind the whole time. Artificial and also in many ways inevitable, the resulting fusion of the social category of race and his own experience of loss and pain dissolved an emotional paradox in a way that carries deep and continuing meaning for him, and that he is afraid to touch.
“Doesn’t matter where you were born. It doesn’t matter what you look like,” he says, tiptoeing right up to the moment. He stands there, unsure how far it is safe to venture.
“It doesn’t matter what your name is,” he continues, edging away a little into the safety of the blandest, most obvious version of the line. “If you’re willing to work hard, if you’ve got some talent, some idea, if you’re motivated, you can make it.” On paper, at least, it could be Bill Cosby talking, or Redd Foxx, or some other cranky old black dad who values hard work. Or like Obama’s father-in-law, whose blood is part of Obama’s children’s blood—which is not his own blood but close. But again he pulls back, unsure of himself and how he appears to his audience.
“We knew it wasn’t going to come easy,” he says, his cadence quickening as he approaches the line again. “We knew it wouldn’t come quickly. We knew there’d be resistance. We knew there would be setbacks.” Now is the time for the man to let loose. “Think about it,” he says. In theory, at least, anything could come next, although of course it won’t. “You get an equal day’s pay for an equal’s day work, because we want our daughters treated just as well as our sons.” The crowd applauds. “That’s what change is.” It’s blander than bland. Then again, I am thinking, Stevie Wonder, who is Obama’s favorite musician, also did a lot of treacly, hotel-lobby love shit. There’s plenty of speech left in which to turn this thing around, or so I’m hoping.
“None of this has been easy,” the President repeats. “Some of it was risky. We were opposed by lobbyists and special interests. Millions of dollars were spent trying to maintain the status quo.” That line falls flat, though when he adds, “and a lot of the things we did weren’t always popular at the time, certainly not with the crowd in Washington,” he draws some applause.
The applause emboldens him, in a direction in which he feels moderately more sure of himself, before a Democratic crowd. “We have not seen a choice this stark in years,” he says. “I mean, even in 2008, the Republican nominee wasn’t a climate-change denier. He was in favor of immigration reform. He was opposed to torture.” The note of disdain in his voice, drawing on a gentleman’s sense of proper conduct, excites the crowd. From their response, it is easy to imagine the pleasure they might take in rising up on their hind legs and giving voice to just such sentiments of outrage. How dare you, sir! “We should be competing to win that race to the top,” Obama says. “We should be competing to make our schools the best in the world. We should be competing to make sure that our workers have the best skills and the best training so they get the best pay!”
We should send a man to the moon! We should dance among the stars! We should. We should. We should. He tells us that Abraham Lincoln launched the First Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences, and the first land-grant universities while still dealing with the Civil War; Teddy Roosevelt proposed a progressive income tax; Dwight D. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system.
“Change is hard, but we know it’s possible. We’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it,” he says, returning to the high-flown, preacherly cadence, which contrasts with the smoke and mirrors of his remarks. “And so, as we go into this election year, I want everybody to understand, yes, you know, my hair is grayer, yes, you know, we’ve got some dings and some dents, and, yes, this financial crisis has been a wakeup call. But you know what? There is no other country that doesn’t envy our position.”
He’s comfortable now, heading into the part where the audience is requested to click its heels three times and think of Kansas. “If you keep on believing, we’ll finish what we started in 2008,” he promises, stretching out the cadence for one more tantalizing moment. “Change will come,” he intones. “If you fight with me and press on with me, I promise you—change will come.” The applause is more urgent now, with some people in the audience shouting out the refrain in a show of excitement that has very little to do with the coolly ambivalent character in front of them. “God bless you,” he concludes. “God bless the United States of America.”
He is living rent-free in a building historically occupied strictly by whites, fighting his battles and taking their money, yet in all this he is invisible—and he knows it. He is invisible because people refuse to see him. What they see is a reflection, in mirrors of distorting glass—a figment of their imaginations. He knows that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play, yet his sense of the limits of that role have caused him to overstay his hibernation. He is heir to a habitual and sometimes crippling sense of constraint that is partly his fault and partly ours.
The key to this flaw, I have long believed, since the first time I read Dreams from My Father, before Barack Obama was elected to public office, can be found in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the novel on which the President seems to have based his autobiography, an act that speaks volumes about him. All the evidence I need, or any dedicated reader should need, for this assertion of influence can be found in the texts of the two books, which speak to each other with a lively student-teacher hum. Once you know the secret, it is clear that crucial scenes in the founding text of Obama’s adult persona are lifted from Ellison’s great novel—though “lifted” is the wrong word, because the copying is plainly deliberate, even though, at the line level, if not the larger structural level, it is often a kind of clever homage.
Where Ellison and Obama differ is that Ellison sees group identity as bunk and Obama sees it as a component of psychological health, at least in his own particular case. Where Ellison sees the invisibility imposed by the social category of race as subjecting individuals to a state of tragic isolation, Obama sees his father’s race as a source of personal freedom and strength.
As it happens now, thanks to a passage in a recent Obama biography by the Washington Post reporter David Maraniss, I can prove my thesis about the formative influence of Invisible Man on Obama’s sense of self. Maraniss relates that during his New York days, Obama spent much of his free time hanging out with a group of smart, upper-class Pakistanis who liked to party and drink and talk politics. Because Obama didn’t have any close family members on the North American continent, the Pakistanis, including Obama’s friend Beenu Mahmood, were probably the best witnesses to the decisive moment of transformation from sophisticated outsider to the man who became president. Mahmood remembers that “for a period of two or three months” Obama “carried and at every opportunity read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and Invisible Man became a prism for his self-reflection.”
Obama’s friends from his time in New York knew the man he would become, because he became that man in front of their eyes. “Distance, distance, distance, and wariness,” wrote his white Australian girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, in her diary on January 26, 1984. On May 26 of that year, she wrote that she dreamed of waiting for an hour to meet him at midnight, with a ticket in her hand. A year later, almost to the day, they broke up. “I read back over the past year in my journals, and see and feel several themes in it all,” she wrote, in words that must sound eerily familiar to any sentient member of the American electorate. “What I have been most concerned with has been my sense of Barack’s withholding the kind of emotional involvement I was seeking. I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and ‘fall in love’ with me. Now, at this point, I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.”
A few months later, on June 4, in a final stab at untangling the knot that makes Obama both a man of his age and a man who often seems incapable of directly addressing the problems he was voted into office to solve, I bought a $250 ticket to another Obama fund-raiser in New York, a theatrical revue called Barack on Broadway, held in the theater that usually plays host to the wonder-nanny musical Mary Poppins. Across the street from the theater a ragged band of protesters holds signs denouncing the billion dollar man, an appellation that seems distinctly attainable, after a $40,000-a-person reception hosted by the hedge-fund billionaire Marc Lasry, followed by a $2,500-a-head gala dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria—with twenty-two weeks remaining until the election, he often stacks events like this twice a week. Inside the theater, hazy white mist drifts over a sky-blue backdrop to the PA accompaniment of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”: what I have come to recognize as the Obama campaign’s “Waiting for the President to arrive from an exclusive big-ticket fund-raiser to a large public fund-raising event” soundtrack.
The show begins, and Nina Arianda, Norbert Leo Butz, Stockard Channing, Neil Patrick Harris, Megan Hilty, Cheyenne Jackson, James Earl Jones, Tony Kushner, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, and assorted other luminaries give their all for the President. My favorite is Mandy Patinkin, whose version of “Over the Rainbow,” with its happy little bluebirds and the rest of Arlen and Harburg’s schmaltz-with-horseradish, I cannot get out of my head. A little bit of Patinkin-style schmaltz and horseradish might be a good thing in an election year. After all those thousands of hours spent wrangling over the arcana of Dodd–Frank and the Volcker Rule, it would be nice if Obama could convincingly fake some disappointment at the fact that nothing meaningful has changed. Asked earlier in the day by a reporter why the President was being hosted by an “evil” hedge-fund manager, presidential press secretary Jay Carney demurred, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with profit.”
Carney also might have added that Lasry, the founder of Avenue Capital Group, has been giving gobs of money to Democrats for the past twenty years; he also gave Chelsea Clinton one of her first jobs, and his son Alex was employed in the Obama White House before he decided to pursue his dream of going to business school. Like Alan Solow, Lasry specializes in making money from distressed and bankrupt companies, a sector that would appear to have benefited greatly during the Obama presidency. One of Lasry’s bigger trophies is his 22 percent stake in Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which filed for its third bankruptcy in 2009. In 2011, Lasry and Trump revealed plans to set up an online gambling site. “It’s got to get approvals from government,” Trump told Bloomberg News, which is mostly owned by New York City’s mayor. “It looks like the approvals should be imminent; why shouldn’t they approve it?”
Indeed, with Lasry raising about $2 million for Obama in two hours this afternoon, why shouldn’t they? “I just want to thank them for their extraordinary friendship,” Obama announced at Lasry’s opulent town house. “They have been great supporters and great friends for a really, really long time. And so to open up their beautiful home to us and offer such great hospitality, I can’t be more grateful.” Then it was off with Bill Clinton to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf, where Jon Bon Jovi did an acoustic version of “Living on a Prayer” followed by the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” At the New Amsterdam Theatre, there is a reading of quotations from Walt Whitman, Gary Shteyngart, and John Updike, who is credited with the line “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” which proves, I am sad to admit, that one of America’s greatest prose artists of the later twentieth century was also something of a moron. The curtain comes down at the end of the first act, and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” comes on again, a song that Barry Obama most likely did roof hits to with the Choom Gang while playing hooky from Punahou.
The fact that the President was a stoner in high school is only one of the many things I like about him, I am thinking, as my attention wanders over to Bill Clinton, the guy who didn’t inhale. So much has happened since he left office—9/11, Iraq, the iPhone, the financial implosion. Silver-haired, standing in front of the American flag, he looks like an escapee from Madame Tussauds. “You know, I was worried about getting half a step slow doing this,” Clinton admits, adding, “I’m a little rusty at politics.” Say it ain’t so, Bill, you sly dog you. But there is a reason Clinton is here today with Obama—aside from their common goal of getting money from Marc Lasry.
“I know things are not perfect now,” he says. “I know they’re a little slow now.” The giveaway is that he repeats the line: he likes the fact that things are slow. It makes him look good and Obama look bad. “Starting on September the fifteenth, we entered the deepest crash since the Great Depression,” he helpfully explains. My mind wanders away from the predictable scene of the wily Clinton undermining his young successor and settles on his hair. Bill Clinton’s hair has star quality. His silver mane is so textured and gorgeous, there’s no way he’s ever going back to Little Rock for a haircut. “If you look at history, those things take five or ten years to get over,” he is saying, “and if there’s a housing collapse along with it, closer to ten years. He’s on schedule to beat that record.” Later, summing up, Clinton looks out at the crowd of 1,700 true believers, most of whom coughed up $250 per ticket for a glimpse of the President and a passel of show tunes. He bites his lip, searching for a surefire way to clinch the deal.
“He did the best he could with a lousy hand,” he offers. I can see the campaign bumper sticker now: he did the best he could with a lousy hand. paid for by obama/biden 2012. Print it, folks! “Give us a twenty-first-century economy we can all be a part of,” Clinton urges, showing us that it is possible to do the big-think reframing thing that Obama is too chicken to try. It’s not you, Bill, I am thinking. It’s the pictures that got small.
At 10 p.m. sharp, Obama walks onstage to rousing applause and starts to speak, while Clinton sits ten feet away from him on a chair and runs through active-listening poses, seamlessly transitioning from one to another, like an adept of Vinyasa yoga. There is Richard Branson pose, and Bono pose, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn pose, honed at countless global seminars on poverty and microlending in Africa. I absorb knowledge like a sponge, which is why in 2016 I will be elected secretary-general of the U.N., which by then will be the most important job in the world, if for no other reason than the fact that it will belong to me, Bill Clinton. I’m ready, folks. But Obama can’t stand me. He made Hillary secretary of state in order to cut my balls off. Now he wants me to pull his irons out of the fire, and I think the best way to do that is to tell the truth, which is that Obama is at least a medium-size stack of hundreds better than the millionaire Mormon leveraged-buyout stiff who wants to be president of “Amercia.”
Obama turns to face Clinton, his political father, or at least the father of the Democratic Party to which he is heir. “Shortly after I had been elected—Bill can relate to this,” he says, “the Secret Service bubble shrinks and it starts really clamping down.” The crowd laughs, glad to be included in the amiable dialogue between these two masters of the political universe and wondering what is coming next. “And the thing that you miss most when you’re president—extraordinary privilege, and a really nice plane, and all kinds of stuff,” Obama says, as if suddenly recollecting that there are some good things about the job, “but suddenly, not only have you lost your anonymity, but your capacity to just wander around and go into a bookstore, or go to a coffee shop, or walk through Central Park.”
He is talking half to himself and half to Bubba, who also understands the bubble. “So I was saying,” he continues. “It was a beautiful day and I had just been driving through Manhattan, and I saw Margo,” he says, referring to one of the producers of Barack on Broadway, the estimable Margo Lion, winner of no fewer than twenty Tonys. “And I said, you know, I just desperately want to take a walk through Central Park again, and just remember what that feels like. But the problem is, obviously, it’s hard to do now.” He asked Margo Lion for help, he says, and about a week later he received a fake mustache. “And I tried it on and I thought it looked pretty good,” he says, as the crowd laughs. “But when I tested this scheme with the Secret Service, they said it didn’t look good enough. But I kept it,” he adds. “So if a couple years from now you see a guy with big ears and a mustache”—the crowd laughs—“just pretend you don’t know who it is. Just look away”—the crowd laughs harder—“Eating a hot dog, you know.”
It’s an unusually personal anecdote for one of these events, a soft-shoe fantasy of disguise and escape presented as a harmless bit of persiflage. The internal suggestion that in order to appear normal he must disguise himself is always there, and has had a negative effect on his presidency. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, whether you’re black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, able, disabled—it doesn’t matter,” he says. “You’ve got a stake in this country,” he says. “You’ve got a claim on this country.” Clinton massages his chin and then freezes the pose, presenting himself as a sculptural form, The Listener. Which one is it, a stake in or a claim on? That Barack Obama is a weird cat. That racial shit will fuck anyone up. He drops both his hands to his lap to give the audience the straight profile, Clinton Rex.
“We’re not going backwards,” Obama says in a voice that, for him, sounds like shouting. If you read the income statistics, though, we have already gone backwards, a century or more, to the age of the robber barons. But there’s not much we can do about that, his delivery suggests, at least not right now. In the interim, it’s intentions that matter—they keep hope alive, by laying down a marker. He broke the mold, but the country is still broken. Another candidate will come along to pick up the baton. Will it be Obama?
“We intend to go forwards! And that’s why I’m running for a second term as President of the United States of America,” he announces, as the audience chants “Four more years.” As the chanting continues, it becomes clear that the direct connection with an audience that Clinton craves makes Obama uncomfortable. Instead of feeding on the crowd’s energy, and mirroring it back to them, which is a normal politician’s first instinct, he turns his head to the side and flashes a little smile at the show talent in the boxes above and to his left. “George Romney—wrong guy,” he corrects himself, getting a good laugh out of one of the palimpsest-like lines he loves so much—the joke being that he has momentarily confused Mitt Romney with his father, George, the former governor of Michigan, a failed Republican presidential candidate in 1968—which makes Mitt Romney like George W. Bush, another rich-kid political scion.
Obama is clearly not driven by meanness or any personal dislike for his opponent. What he likes best about the presidency is the emotional bubble. But if Obama doesn’t want to fully invest himself—especially the parts that he worries might turn people off—how can he ask other people to invest in him? Bill Clinton may be a big baby who continues to put his bruised ego above the needs of his party and the country, but he isn’t the President of the United States anymore. Clinton’s deep knowledge of the interplay of the financial elite and governance that he helped to shape might have been useful in a moment of grave economic crisis. Wrangling Bill Clinton is a trick best suited to a man used to managing a powerful father. Obama never knew his father. The people in his speeches are abstractions, not because he sees people abstractly but because most of the people who shaped his personal life and his political life are unserviceable.
“I still believe in you,” Obama says, sounding a bit plaintive. “I hope you still believe in me”—the words of a married man who knows that he has caused profound disappointment to his partner but can’t bring himself to fully apologize. “I hope you still believe!” Even hibernations can be overdone. “If people ask you what this campaign is about,” he concludes, “you tell them it’s still about hope and it’s still about change.”
There is nothing left to say, except to repeat the fact that I like him, even though I don’t believe a word he says anymore. He shakes a few hands, and then ducks into his motorcade, which reaches the Wall Street landing zone at 11:14 p.m. There is still a huge gray scar in the ground, where the footprints of the vaporized towers fade into a gray concrete mess. This is where the once shining promise of America becomes a drainage ditch surrounded by construction cranes and halfhearted office towers. Pages of burnt legal paper blew across the river for days afterward, but nothing basic in the country changed. Nothing changed after the financial crisis of 2008–09, and nothing will change this time either. Obama knows his own limits. He is better than the rich people who pay for his campaigns, because he has seen more and felt more. He’s aesthetically gifted, and wrapped up in himself. He’s the president we deserve, and who speaks to us in our own language, whose objective is to paper over the cracks rather than to tell us who we are.