If Barack Obama had not chosen a life in politics, he might have made a fine psychotherapist. He is a master at taking what you've told him and feeding it right back. What I hear you saying is ...
Open his book The Audacity of Hope to almost any page and listen. On immigration, for example, Obama first mirrors "the faces of this new America" he has met in the ethnic stew pot of Chicago: "in the Indian markets along Devon Avenue, in the sparkling new mosque in the southwestern suburbs, in an Armenian wedding and a Filipino ball." Then he pivots to give voice to the "anxieties" of "many blacks" and "as many whites about the wave of illegal immigration," adding: "Not all of these fears are irrational." He admits that he knows the "frustration" of needing an interpreter to speak to one's auto mechanic and in the next breath cherishes the innocent dreams of an immigrant child.
In other words, he hears America singing and griping, fretting, seething, conniving, hoping, despairing. He can deliver a pitch-perfect expression of the racial anger of many American blacks as he did in his much discussed speech on race relations earlier this year and, just as smoothly, unpack the racial irritations gnawing at many whites. To what extent does he share any of those emotions? The doctor never exactly says.
Consciously or unconsciously, Obama has been honing this technique for years. During his time at Harvard Law School in the 1980s, the student body was deeply divided. In one heated debate, Obama so adroitly summarized the various positions without tipping his own hand that by the end of the meeting, as Professor Charles Ogletree told one newspaper, "everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me."
He has been called a window into the American psyche. Or you might say he's a mirror what you see depends on who you are and where you stand. Obama puts it this way: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." But those metaphors all suggest that he is some sort of passive instrument, when in fact his elusive quality is an active part of his personality. It's how you square the fact that Obama once wrote the most intimate memoir ever published by a future nominee yet still manages to avoid definition. At his core, this is a deeply reserved and emotionally reticent man. Consider this anecdote from Dreams from My Father: as a young man in New York City, he lived next door to an elderly recluse "who seemed to share my disposition." When he happened to meet his neighbor returning from the store, Obama would offer to carry the old man's groceries. Together, the two of them would slowly climb the stairs, never speaking, and at the top, the man would nod silently "before shuffling inside and closing the latch ... I thought him a kindred spirit," Obama concludes.
Both his rhetorical style and his ingrained disposition tend to obscure rather than reveal. This is how Obama remains enigmatic no matter how much we see of him. As the campaign enters its last chapter, it may not be enough for him to say, as he often does, "This election is not about me ... this campaign is about you." Supporters and opponents alike want a clearer picture of Obama, and they are selecting elements of his words, policies, public record and biography to shape their clashing interpretations. Those pieces of Obama are also open to interpretation, because so few of them are stamped from any familiar presidential mold: the polygamous father, the globe-traveling single mother, the web of roots spreading from Kansas to Kenya, friends and relatives from African slums to Washington and Wall Street, and intellectual influences ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Malcolm X. Four of the faces of Obama pose various threats to his hopes for victory. The fifth is the one his campaign intends to drive home, from the convention in Denver right to Election Day.
1. The Black Man
Henry Louis Gates Jr. once wrote an essay on the life of writer Anatole Broyard, the light-complexioned son of two black parents who lived his life passing as a white man. "He wanted to be a writer," Gates explained, but "he did not want to be a Negro writer. It is a crass disjunction, but it is not his crassness or his disjunction ... We give lip service to the idea of the writer who happens to be black, but had anyone, in the postwar era, ever seen such a thing?"
Obama tells a parallel story in his memoir, the journey of a man raised by his Caucasian mother and grandparents who seeks his identity as an African American. Along the path, he was drawn to a number of older black men who argued that America's racial divide is absolute and unbridgeable. Obama recalls a visit as a teenager to the home of a black man his white grandfather considered a friend. To his surprise, the man explained that it was hopeless to think any white man could truly befriend someone black. "He can't know me," the man said of Obama's grandfather. No matter how close they might seem, "I still have to watch myself."