Perhaps it was a shock to the anxious public last Wednesday that Barack Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate was as lackluster as it was, yet this is a man who is still not known. From his appearance on the political stage during the 2004 Democratic National Convention to his ascendancy to the highest office in the land, the romance between Obama and the public has been short and bittersweet. Fragmentary glimpses into his true character, and conflicting accounts of his worldview have brought a tired public to the point of renouncing the tidal wave of powerful sentiment that swept the country during the 2008 campaign. With the aura of mystique that perpetually surrounds the man and his carefully guarded private life, motivations are not easy to decipher. From this confusion and the wearied performance last week, one must necessarily ask a question that persists, why does Obama want the presidency?
The realm of psychological analysis is a dangerous land to traverse, even for the most knowledgeable; but if motion is the key to understanding the physical world, then it is the mind of man that is key to understanding politics. History fascinates, less because of grand battles and revolutionary movements, but because of the minds behind them. The great leaders of American history were men whose purpose shone through the darkest hours. Franklin Roosevelt's suffering became his commitment to the legions of depressed. Lincoln’s rise from nowhere drove his iron will towards unity. And in Obama, there was an initial sense of regeneration and revitalization. As the first black president he was the living symbol of American hope and progress. His soaring rhetoric confirmed an awareness of this exalted perception, but his actions seem to continually expose this as shallow and unfounded.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama relates his own experience as a fairly privileged youth, albeit filled with many unconventional experiences. The dominating sense of an absent father and the attempt to rationalize the decisions of a unique mother culminates in a wayward search for identity. If this bildungsroman gives us any insight into Obama’s character, it is that he found a purpose in identity — a calculated identity, pieced together slowly and cautiously over the course of his early adulthood. David Maraniss’s new biography sheds a more objective light upon this process of self-creation, but the coldness of calculation shines through on every page. Obama comes across as a perpetual observer, engaged only to the point at which disengagement is still possible, so much so that fellow students at ColumbiaUniversity failed to remember him even when they had participated in the same events or organizations. Despite this murkiness, the narrative of loss, search and attainment is there; what remains hidden is the political purpose. Can a man’s whole life and political philosophy be defined by the need to craft an identity? In his own account, Obama was affected by the experiences of inequality, injustice and the black cause in Chicago, but he never translates them into a full political statement. Is this the mark of a perpetually open nature, or is he still poised to disengage?
The press is just as bewildered as the public. As Maureen Dowd points out, the man’s true nature seems buried beneath layers of tenuous perceptions. His image is contradictory at best. The eloquent man whose sensitive handling of painful issues is reported as the competitor-in-chief, claiming that he could perform the function of any one of his staff better than they can. He is a man with extraordinary empathy and penetrating insight into the human condition, incapable of fostering relationships within his own party, not to mention the donors necessary to his survival. He is a worldly man, living in a cocoon of private relations that fuel his ego; and a professor of constitutional law that authorizes the assassination of American citizens abroad. Who exactly is this man? What are his principles?
The complexity inherent in the world of the presidency is beyond the grasp of the public. Thus elections, despite the real need for policy solutions, are won on the condition of trust. For better or for worse, this basic fact translates into the need for a clear understanding of purpose. Obama’s shifting nature, no longer hidden behind inflated rhetoric, has been a revelation during a shotgun marriage. His motives remain obscured behind a kaleidoscope of images and speeches that the public no longer understands. The previous debate was a tipping point for the public’s palpable frustration. Perhaps more impressive performances in the future will assuage the harm done during the first, but there is no more denial of the relationship between Obama and this country. It is one of necessity; that is, unless he shows us exactly why he wants this job.