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Monday, August 3, 2009

Meant for Big Things?

The Washington Post has printed an excerpt from Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson's new book, The Battle for America 2008, including two passages that say interesting things about Obama's character. First, a memo Axelrod wrote to Obama in 2006, assessing his strengths and weaknesses:

At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty.

And this, from Obama himself in 2008:

"Axelrod's right," he continued. "I'm not somebody who actually takes myself that seriously. I'm pretty well adjusted. You know, you can psychoanalyze my father leaving and this and that, but a lot of those things I resolved a long time ago. I'm pretty happy with my life. So there's an element, I think, of being driven that might have operated a little differently with me than maybe some other candidates. ... I went into it with some modesty, thinking to myself: It may be that this really is all hype, and once people get a sense of my ideas and what's going on there that they think I'm some callow youth or full of hot air, and if that turned out to be the case, that was okay. I think for me it was more of a sense of being willing to do this, understanding that the odds were probably -- I gave myself 25 percent odds, you know, maybe 30 -- which are pretty remarkable odds to be president of the United States, if you're a gambling man."

I always get this sharp and disorienting sense of dissonance when I read a quote like this, or a passage from one of his books, and feel pressed up against a personality that seems both deeply intelligent and modest. There's been a lot written about Obama's poise or "cool" in handling tough situations and policy decisions, but it's the remarkable sense of balance in his self-perspective that keeps catching me off-guard.

As Ezra notes, it's always interesting to find out about
the decision-making process that candidates go through when they choose to run for president. On the one hand, it's easy to see the seductions of power. But few of us think we're the best, most intelligent, most capable person we know, much less the best, most intelligent, most capable person in the country. So how do you seek a position where that, at least in theory, is what's written under 'qualifications'?

What's unnerving about such passages, I think, is that they suggest a kind of humane grace that is very hard for me to relate to. Though I remain an ambitious person with an overly-generous estimation of my abilities, I often think of growing up as the process of learning that I was much more normal, and less important, than I'd imagined in childhood. In sharp contrast with his alternately brainy or chummy but imminently familiar predecessors, the personality that comes across in such passages has less in common with my experience of frail humanity than my idealized sense of major historical figures -- John Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln -- figures far outside my ken. So I read, and I feel a bit of (slightly rueful) worship.

But I also think about how others will read such passages, conservatives weaned on parsing every Clintonian statement as another iteration of "I did not have sex with that woman." And the dissonance that I feel will always register for them as deceit. If a birth certificate doesn't weigh with them, how much lighter statements from the campaign manager and the candidate himself? And this makes me sad, if only because it drives home the different histories we're all living right now.*** I don't care if large swaths of the population and its legislators fight Obama's political agenda tooth and nail; but if he's even half the person I think he is, I'm sad that they won't recognize the quality of their opponent and the history he's helping to shape.

P.S.> On the other hand, I *do* think that it's possible for people to change their mind; in her heart of hearts, I'm pretty sure Hillary Clinton has a different evaluation of Obama today than she did two years ago.

*** This sense of different histories reminds me of the much-maligned Carter presidency. I've always had a deep admiration for the man and his policies (if not always, their execution). I don't think there ever will be another president, for instance, who would go to Three Mile Island in the middle of the crisis, while experts were still worried it would melt down, simply because he felt that risking death was worth reassuring the American people.

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