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 and 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 seeking a second term.
But still we ask: Who is Barack Obama?
On the last night of April 2011, Obama put on his black tie for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton. He 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 his presidency.
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.
This has not always worked in his favor; he has frustrated supporters who say he does not express righteous anger when he should.
And not 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 on the billboard 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 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 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. 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.
It is instructive that Obama, now 51, brought his own personal narrative — his most powerful weapon — to the healthcare 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.
“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.
NOT A SOCIALIST
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.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
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.
He would later tell Bob 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.”
This is a man, remember, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, before he had even served a year in office. 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 nonviolent 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.”