Article — From the September 2012 issue

The Changeling

The content of Obama’s character

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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.

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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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