Obama’s First Year: Who is Obama?

Obama’s First Year: Who is Obama?

GRANTED WE projected our fantasies onto him. But it wasn’t just that we deluded ourselves; it was more like a tango, a seductive dance in which we both played a part. We needed to believe, he needed believers. We were a perfect match: our hunger and his promise. After eight years of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Yoo, and the rest, he was like the coming of spring after a treacherous winter—the embodiment of a new era, a new politics, a sense of redemption and renewal. His name was Barack Hussein Obama, and he was the perfect vessel into which to deposit our progressive hopes: a slim, graceful, fiercely intelligent, handsome black man with an easy manner, funny ears, and a gorgeous smile. We fell in love.

That I can even talk about falling in love with a politician sounds ridiculous coming from an old political hand like me—a woman who decades ago (another life, it seems) managed congressional campaigns and saw firsthand how easily politics corrupts. But that was Barack Obama’s genius; he made us forget what we knew. I’m reminded of a book by Julian Barnes, a meditation on life and death, whose opening line is, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Barack Obama filled the void; he gave us something to believe in. So my heart ruled, even when my brain stirred uncomfortably.

My brain poked me from time to time as we moved through the long campaign and the first months of his presidency. Didn’t he say unequivocally, “Let there be no doubt, I will end this war…and get all of our combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months?” How did that certainty get transformed into the hazy, “In 16 months, we should be able to reduce our combat troops?” He told us he was open to all ideas, yet the advocates for single-payer universal health care were excluded from the table. Timothy Geithner, the Goldman Sachs alumnus, as Secretary of the Treasury! That’s quite a reward for sitting at the head of the New York Fed for five years while the excesses of Wall Street devastated the economy.

Then there’s same-sex marriage. I get it; Obama won’t spend political capital on a fight with Congress to legalize same-sex marriage. But the pen he promised to use to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” remains capped on his desk. And how do you explain his failure to stand by the assault weapon ban? Does he really believe the Second Amendment gives us the right to carry weapons that can murder dozens of people with a single pull of the trigger? What will he give away next in his quest for a consensus the Republicans are determined not to give him? Okay, okay, I hear you, and I even agree, said my heart. But enough! This is what it means to govern; you have to pick your fights, find the compromise without giving away the principle. Be patient, give him a chance; you’ll see.

SEE WHAT? I never really had an answer. Was I naïve enough to believe that it was only a matter of finding the right time before he’d step up to the change he promised? Perhaps not naïve but hungry enough to believe a full table awaited me. Now, one year into the Obama presidency, I’ve run out of excuses, speculations, and pseudo-explanations. Sure, I can still be moved momentarily by his soaring rhetoric and the subtlety of his mind, but the balance between heart and brain has shifted. I want deeds, not words; I want to hear the whole symphony, not just the melody.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that Barack Obama’s worst is a lot better than George Bush’s best. But I’m like the woman who, when the flames of passion no longer glow so brightly, suddenly notices that the guy she thought was perfect leaves his dirty underwear on the floor and that his most often-used words are I and me. And like her, I find myself asking: What was I thinking? What happened since those days of transformative dreams and inspirational words that spoke of remaking the nation?

It’s easy to say that “the hope and hubris have given way to the daily grind of governance,” as an article in the New York Times put it recently. Or as Anna Quindlen wrote in Newsweek, “This president promised to tackle the big stuff, swiftly, decisively, and in a fashion about which he was unequivocal…For those who yearned for a progressive agenda that would change the playing field for the disenfranchised, he promised to do good. So far he has mainly done government, which overlaps with good too little in the Venn diagram of American public policy.” But talking about the difficulty and complexity of governing in our fractious democracy without attention to the governor misses a vital piece of the story.

Or does it? My divided self surfaces again, this time between the two disciplines to which I owe allegiance: sociology and psychology. My sociological self argues that you can’t leave the social system out of the man. But the psychologist in me, ever wary of a sociology that doesn’t allow for human agency, insists that you can’t leave the man out of the social system. Which leads me to the conviction that if we’re going to talk about the way Obama governs, we have to look back at the social and personal history that formed him: a history that’s unique among American presidents.

TRUE, THE sociologist in me argues, but this also is a unique historical moment. The social, economic and political forces arrayed against Obama are formidable: there is the worst economic debacle since the Great Depression; a Republican opposition that’s little more than a collection of naysayers who live in fear of their right flank and have made the words “moderate Republican” into an oxymoron; a real unemployment rate—not just what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports—that’s over 17 percent; a left that’s fractious and conflicted while the right is organized, noisy, and determined; a voracious media whose ever-shorter news cycles need constant feeding so that by now there’s virtually no distinction between the trivial and the momentous, between reality and fantasy, between news and entertainment.

Yes, the psychologist replies, that’s all true. But you forgot to mention that Obama is black. I know we’re not supposed to talk about race; Obama himself would prefer to leave it out of the conversation. But how can we when, whether in support or opposition, so much of the attention to his candidacy rose from that fact? Yes, he’s smart; yes, he can give a great speech; yes, he’s a refreshing change from the past. But he also represents a historic—and for many a frightening—shift in the nation we knew.

How can we leave race out when, early in his run for the presidency, he was too black for whites and too white for blacks; when the threats against his life spiraled upward as it became evident that he was a serious candidate (and continue into his presidency); and when significant numbers of Americans believe Obama is an illegal alien who has no right to be president? “They have taken over the nation,” they cry repeatedly at the anti-Obama rallies that swept the country last summer. “We’re here to take our country back.” Extreme views to be sure, but does anyone really believe that the women and men we saw on our television screens then are alone among Americans who take note of the color of his skin and who respond, for good or ill, to all the social, personal, and historical meanings attached to that single fact?

In Families on the Fault Line, published in 1994, I wrote a chapter titled “Is This a White Country–or What?”–a direct quote from several of the white people I spoke with when I was doing the research for the book. Now the fear that haunted them has come true: California, Texas, and New Mexico are no longer white country, others are not far behind, and Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States.

Yes, I know that their anger is born out of the social, cultural, and class realities of their lives, and I’ve written about this repeatedly over the last four decades. But I know also that this is a place where sociology and psychology come together: the nexus where race plays itself out in the American culture and consciousness; where we internalize the socially defined status hierarchy that comes with racial definition; where those definitions—and the rules, norms, beliefs, and attitudes that flow from them—come to be embedded in each of us. For Barack Obama, whose life experience has been so profoundly influenced by the conflicts of race, it has been a central organizing feature of his consciousness.

By now everyone knows his story. It’s interesting, heartwarming, even exotic, but we don’t talk much about its deeper meanings—about how it marked him and how it influences the way he governs. Born to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father (who left the family when Obama was two years old), he was raised white but looked black—a child of two worlds who belonged to neither, an adolescent who, he writes in his memoir Dreams from My Father, “was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.”

Except for a few early years in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he wasn’t likely to encounter a black face, Obama was raised largely by his white grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the black population in 1960 was a scant 0.8 percent. By the time he was nine years old, his racial consciousness—his otherness—exploded in his face when he came across a photograph in Life magazine of a black man who tried to peel off his skin: an image that, he writes, “permanently altered” his vision of himself and the world. “That one photograph told me that there was a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone’s knowledge, not even my own.” Suddenly he noticed what he hadn’t seen before: “Cosby never got the girl in I Spy, the black man on Mission Impossible spent all his time underground, there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas Catalog.”

Nor was anyone like him at his school in Honolulu. He was a sophomore in high school before another black boy, Ray—the son of a military family transferred from Los Angeles to a base nearby—entered the school. Although Ray was two years older and a senior, Obama recalls, “We fell into an easy friendship due in no small part to the fact that together we made up almost half the black high-school population.” Ray, a savvy urban kid, introduced Obama to elements of black culture about which he knew little, telling him tall tales and true stories about what it was to grow up black in a big city on the mainland, talking about the racial slights and slurs of his experience—all with anger, a shrug, and an explanation: “That’s just how white folks will do you.”

For Obama it was a revelation but not one he could embrace comfortably. “White folks,” he writes, “itself was uncomfortable in my mouth; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase.” Not that he didn’t have his own experience with being called “a coon” by a classmate, with a woman in his apartment building who was so frightened by his presence in the elevator she called the janitor to report a stalker, and with a tennis coach who told him not to touch the printed match schedule because his “color might rub off.” But how could he generalize about the cruelty of white folks when the blood of his white kin coursed through his veins and when the closest and most loved people in his life were white?

But somewhere inside he knew what he didn’t really want to know. For by then he understood that his grandparents, transplants from Wichita, Kansas, lived with typical white American stereotypes about black men as the alien, frightening other. Reflecting on this painful knowledge, he writes, “They sacrificed again and again for me. They had poured all their lingering hopes into my success. Never had they given me reason to doubt their love…And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still in-spire their rawest fears.”

Whether in the family or outside it, Obama’s difference created a space that lay unoccupied between them. Outwardly he learned how to get along, to behave in ways that brought him recognition and acceptance; inside he lived on the margins of both the black world and the white one. His strange-sounding name morphed from Barack to Barry as he sought to find common ground with those around him. But a name is more than just a name; it identifies us, tells us who we are, where we belong. It’s not easy for anyone to own a new name. But for Obama, embracing the Barry who replaced Barack was made more difficult by his emerging identity struggles and the reality that nothing could replace the color of skin.

VERY INTERESTING, the sociologist says, but what does all that have to do with the mess he inherited and the politics of the world in which he has to govern? You know as well as I do that it’s the context that counts.

Yes, that’s true, the psychologist replies, and that’s what I’m trying to do–to put his life experience into context. Can you at least grant that the external social world Obama now has to manage is as divided as his internal psychological world has always been—and that this has made a difference in how he navigates the tumultuous waters that surround his presidency? Take a look at Robert Kuttner’s excellent Huffington Post article, “A Tale of Two Obamas.” After attending the president’s jobs summit, he limns the political man: his “pitch perfect” responses to difficult questions versus his actual behavior. “I was reminded, first hand,” Kuttner writes, “what drew so many of us to the promise of this remarkable outsider…[and] I came away even more bewildered and dismayed at the reality.”

This is the puzzle Obama presents: the duality between what seems to be sincere belief and the behavior that doesn’t follow. Sure, he’s responding to the difficult and tendentious politics of our time. Yes, the music slowed at least partly because he started his reelection campaign the day after his inauguration. And maybe, as some argue, he has always been a centrist, and we just didn’t want to believe it.

But, however true all this may be, it doesn’t preclude another truth: that Obama is a charming presence with an easy smile who keeps his own counsel, who stands apart, always aloof, cool, reasonable. The same man who was a community organizer—a job that requires the ability to walk across several worlds, to hold out a conciliatory hand, to seek ways to help people cross the chasms that separate them. A perfect fit with the man who, as president, repeatedly extends his hand to an intransigent opposition, not just because he seeks bi-partisanship for political gain but because he’s compelled to try to bridge the divide now as he did then.

These are the tools and skills Obama developed early on—tools that brought him so successfully from boyhood to manhood, from community organizer to Harvard Law School and editor of the Harvard Law Review, and from there to the Senate and the presidency. And as he looks out from his internal world, it surely seems that he still needs them. For even as the President of the United States, he remains a stranger.

Okay, I get it, grumbles the sociologist, but I don’t wholly buy it. And while I think about it, tell me how you explain his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan if not as a response to unwavering opposition and pressure from the generals. I have no answer that will satisfy either of us, only that it’s what he does–offering something for everybody, not fully satisfying anybody, probably not even himself. Did I once believe in this man, love him? Is it all gone? No. But my heart weeps for what seems like a vanishing dream. And I live with the fear that it may be Barack Obama’s tragedy—and ours—that the very qualities that helped him rise so high will ultimately bring him down.

“You can’t leave it there,” a reader of an earlier version of this article insisted passionately. “We can’t just ask Obama to have a different personality. Where are the picket lines outside the White House calling for a pullout from Afghanistan? Where are the picket lines in front of Wall Street banks and investment houses?”

She’s right, of course. With the election of Barack Obama, liberals and progressives have become the new silent majority. Or perhaps I should say the silenced majority—a silence we’ve imposed on ourselves out of fear of damaging this presidency. It’s time to face it: this is the president we elected, and until we make our voices heard—this is the president we’ll get. As FDR said to John L. Lewis when he reminded the new president that it was his promise to labor that energized a nascent union movement to help ensure his victory, Roosevelt replied, “That’s right; now go out and make me do it.”

Lillian B. Rubin is with the Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley. She is a sociologist, psychologist, and author of numerous books, the latest of which is 60 on Up: The Truth about Aging in America (Beacon Press, 2007).

Blind Injustice [Advertisement]