Article — From the September 2012 issue

The Changeling

The content of Obama’s character

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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.

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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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