Washington DC (AP) – Nearly four years after Barack Obama was elected to the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, the question remains: Who is he?
He seemed to come out of nowhere. He had served seven years in the Illinois Senate, and less than four years in the U.S. Senate — a meager political resume, augmented by a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
His was an exotic story, at least by the standards of the 42 white men who preceded him in office. Son of a black African and white Kansan, born in Hawaii, raised there and in Indonesia, he was something new, and America seemed ready for him. He won almost 9.5 million votes more than John McCain.
And yet, “there was the feeling that we knew less than we needed to know” about our new president, says Janny Scott, author of “A Singular Woman,” a biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother. “He didn’t fit a comfortable template.”
Four years have passed. We have watched Obama as commander in chief, waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and we have seen him accept the Nobel Peace Prize. We have seen him grapple with a dismal economy and a relentless opposition. We have been spectators to a grueling fight over health care from which he emerged victorious — if only just barely. All of this in the glare of a fierce and unyielding media spotlight.
By now, we should have a fix on the man who is asking for a second term.
But still we ask: Who is Barack Obama?
On the last night of April in 2011, Obama put on his black tie for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton. Obama was in good form that night; he congratulated Donald Trump, then considering a run for the Republican nomination, on his recent decision to fire actor Gary Busey on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night,” Obama said, to peals of laughter. “Well-handled, sir. Well-handled.”
What his audience didn’t realize — what few people knew at that moment — was that Obama had, just hours before, given the go-ahead for the mission that would claim the life of America’s Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. It was a huge gamble, perhaps the biggest of Obama’s presidency.
“If that failed, it really would have been a political disaster,” says historian Robert Dallek, who has written books on presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. “It would have been reminiscent of Jimmy Carter and the helicopter going down in the Iranian desert” in an ill-starred effort to rescue American hostages from Tehran.
If Obama was nervous, he kept it hidden. In fact, he played nine holes of golf the next morning, before returning to the White House to monitor the unfolding mission during what he later described as “the longest 40 minutes of my life.”
It was retired Air Force Chief of Staff Tony McPeak, an Obama supporter, who first called him “No-Drama Obama” during the 2008 campaign. The nickname stuck, perhaps because sang-froid is central to Obama’s personality.
“That measured approach to everything characterizes a lot of what he has done,” says David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. “It’s kind of remarkable how he has stayed in character, as if he were the calm, cool grown-up in the room.”
This has not always worked in his favor; he has frustrated supporters who say he does not express righteous anger when he should.
Kennedy recalls that in 1936, when FDR was running for his second term, he declared the start of the second New Deal — and pronounced himself ready to take on the many, moneyed powers aligned against him: “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
Obama, Kennedy says, is “temperamentally incapable” of taking that kind of stand. “It’s just not in his bloodstream.”
His education in Java, the main island of Indonesia, taught him not to show his emotions, author Scott says, and the story of his life with (and without) Ann Dunham explains a lot about her son.
Not that everyone believes the Obama story.
Drive along Interstate 78, near Fredericksburg, and you’ll see a billboard in the gentle, rolling hills of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It bears just five words: “Where’s the real birth certificate?” ”Real” is in red, the rest in black.
The name “Barack Obama” is nowhere to be found, but there is no mistaking the message. More than a year after the White House released copies of the birth certificate on file in Hawaii, a conservative website still questions whether the president is an American.
The “birthers” are easy to marginalize; a Gallup poll in 2011 found that only 13 percent of Americans believed Obama was probably or definitely born in another country. But how to account for a recent Pew Research Center poll that found that only 49 percent knew Obama is a Christian? Perhaps it’s just that his name sounds unusual to many American ears.
The fact is, as certified by the state of Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. His birth certificate lists his mother’s race as “Caucasian” and his father as “African.” In June of the next year, his father — a brilliant economist from Kenya — would leave his young family to study at Harvard. He would never return.
His son would tell the story in his own memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and it would be retold — with additions and amendments — by others, including Scott, New Yorker editor David Remnick and Washington Post writer David Maraniss. The outlines basically remain the same:
— How he spent his youth alternately in the care of his grandparents in Hawaii and his mother, who moved to Indonesia and a short-lived marriage to a geologist there. In Indonesia he would eat dog and snake; in Hawaii he would sample marijuana, and sample it some more.
—How he went on to Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law, and along the way struggled to come to terms with his identity as a black man of mixed heritage in a white society. Genevieve Cook, a girlfriend of Obama’s from New York, told Maraniss how “he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” And that she would later realize that, “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black.”
—How he ended up in Chicago as a community organizer, working on the South Side. In doing so, he would credit his mother and her work in Indonesia as his inspiration.
Much has been made of the omissions and inaccuracies found by Obama’s biographers in his memoir. For example, Obama did not identify Cook, and would acknowledge later that he conflated her with another girlfriend. Some of Obama’s opponents saw these discrepancies as evidence of slickness, or even con-artistry.
In her research, Scott found that Ann Dunham did not lack health insurance when she was dying of cancer, as her son would claim in pressing for his health care overhaul. Instead, she lacked disability insurance that would have paid other expenses.
“I don’t see these things as an indictable offense,” Scott says, chalking it up to a “failure of memory.”
It is instructive that Obama, now 51, brought his own personal narrative — his most powerful weapon — to the health care fight. It is the signal achievement of his first term, but it came at great cost: time and energy and political capital in the midst of a raging recession.
“The president is an intellectually ambitious man who is temperamentally cautious,” says Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton.
For health care, he was all in.
“I don’t think a system is working when small businesses are gouged and 15,000 Americans are losing coverage every single day; when premiums have doubled and out-of-pocket costs have exploded and they’re poised to do so again,” Obama told a gathering of Republican lawmakers in 2010. “I mean, to be fair, the status quo is working for the insurance industry, but it’s not working for the American people. It’s not working for our federal budget. It needs to change.”
The Republicans did not agree, and though his party had control of the House for the first two years of his presidency, Obama had to compromise again and again to ensure that he could hold on to every Democratic vote in the Senate, because he needed every vote.
In 2008, Obama offered the promise of a post-partisan age. That glimmering vision died in the debate over health care.
All along the way, Obama encountered lock-step opposition from Republicans. The most dramatic example, perhaps, was last summer’s confrontation over raising the debt ceiling, in which the country came perilously close to defaulting on its obligations. Obama thought he had reached a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to cut spending and raise revenues, but then Boehner walked away. The Republicans insist they never neared an agreement.
Some opponents have charged that Obama was advancing socialism. His government did take over much of the auto industry for a time, seeing General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy. He did press for stronger regulation of the financial industry in the wake of the crisis that launched the Great Recession, and like most Democratic administrations his government is generally more bullish on regulation than are Republicans.
But daunted by the challenge of winning congressional approval, he sought a smaller stimulus than many thought necessary. His efforts to protect homeowners threatened with foreclosure have come up short. And surprisingly few bankers — but no high-level executives of major banks — are in jail on charges related to the financial crisis.
So he’s not a socialist. In some ways, it’s easiest to define Obama by what he’s not.
He is clearly not a pacifist, though he was elected on a pledge to end the Iraq War, and he did.
But he also sent men to kill bin Laden. He helped engineer the international campaign that ended the life and regime of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. He decimated the leadership of al-Qaida, cutting them down from above with a drove of drones.
And he escalated the war in Afghanistan, threading the needle between generals who wanted an even larger force and his own vice president, Joe Biden, who wanted to pull troops out. In his book, “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward describes a president who is deeply involved in planning, one who recoiled when military leaders tried to convince him that his only real option was to send 40,000 troops with an open-ended commitment.
“I’m not going to make a commitment that leaves my successor with more troops than I inherited in Afghanistan,” Obama said.
In the end, he decided to send 30,000 more troops immediately, and to begin to withdraw them in July 2011.
He would later tell Woodward that he was too young to be burdened with “the baggage that arose out of the dispute of the Vietnam War” — he didn’t feel any adversarial relationship with the military, or “a hawk/dove kind of thing.”
Nor was he worried about defeat. “I think about it not so much in the classic, do you lose a war on my watch? Or win a war on a president’s watch? I think about it more in terms of, do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end of it.”
This is a man, remember, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, before he had even served a year in office. When he was informed of the award, he seemed abashed, describing himself as “surprised” and “deeply humbled.”
When he accepted the prize, though, he gave an acceptance speech like no other. First, he noted the irony of accepting a peace prize even as he was commander in chief of a military waging two wars. Then, he went on to explain that, while he revered Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he could not follow their example in every way.
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms. …
“And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.”
The Oslo speech was widely praised. It was an exception in that way; in his first term, Barack Obama rarely delivered the kinds of extraordinary speeches that sent him to the White House in the first place. Instead, he offered well-written, logical addresses that were rarely memorable. The irony: Elected as a master communicator, he is sometimes criticized for failing to use his skills to enlist the public in his causes, like health care reform.
“Most people thought he would let his rhetoric do the work for him,” says Douglas Brinkley, a historian whose books include biographies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
But “he hasn’t told his story well enough,” Brinkley says. Obama himself has said as much: “The mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” he told CBS’ Charlie Rose last month. “But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.”
Many thought that in electing Obama, Americans had chosen a president who would be bold and steadfast in pressing his agenda. Instead, he has drawn criticism from both the right and the left for being too coy, too willing to step back and let others lead.
“Instead of drawing clear lines and putting forward detailed proposals,” conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times after the debt ceiling fiasco, “the president has played Mr. Compromise — ceding ground to Republicans here, sermonizing about Tea Party intransigence and Washington gridlock there, and fleshing out his preferred approach reluctantly, if at all.”
All agree that he does work hard, and is truly engaged by his work. CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller keeps track of presidents’ comings and goings. This past May, he said Obama had spent all or part of 54 days at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. At the same point in his first term, George W. Bush had been there for all or part of 256 days.
This is not to say that Obama is averse to regular-guy moments of fun — say, a quick trip to a burger joint with the vice president. He startled an audience at a fundraiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater by breaking into a few bars of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
But the informal Obama is not necessarily convincing. When white police Sgt. James Crowley arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to get into his own home and charged him with disorderly conduct, Obama said Crowley had “acted stupidly.” (He later would say the phrase was ill-chosen.) To settle the issue, Obama held a “beer summit,” inviting Gates and Crowley to come to the White House for a few brewskies. The event was lampooned: “This could be trouble, because the last time Obama got a few beers in him, he bought General Motors,” said comedian Conan O’Brien.
Mostly, he remains a dignified and graceful figure — graying, like many of his predecessors, under the weight of office. He is, at heart, a dad, and Brinkley thinks that is one of the reasons his popularity ratings remain high.
“His strongest suit may be in the end that he is such a tremendous husband, a tremendous father,” says Brinkley. “Even his mother-in-law lives in the White House.”
There’s also first lady Michelle Obama; and 11-year-old Sasha and 14-year-old Malia; and there is Bo, the Portuguese water dog the girls were promised as a reward for leaving Chicago to move to the executive mansion.
Obama’s fatherly impulses have surfaced at many of the most painful moments of the past four years. When he visited the victims of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and their survivors, he said he was doing so as a “father and as a husband.” And after the killing of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., Obama spoke not only of his feelings as a parent, but as a man who understood firsthand the possible consequences of skin color:
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
No other president could have said those words.
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