One of my students, during a break between classes this afternoon, asked me some very pointed questions about President Obama. His questions were rather pointed, and I had to confess that I did not understand the man very well. There are some people whom it is easy to know and some people who keep their true selves buried deep, and President Obama is certainly in the latter category. He is a man who seems somewhat cold and remote, intellectual and aloof, possessed of rhetorical brilliance but seemingly lacking human warmth. I do not say this as an insult; I myself have often been accused of similar failings.
He strikes me as a profoundly complicated man. His father was a Kenyan socialist idealist, one of many produced and chewed up by Africa in the heady and ultimately disastrous post-colonial period. His complicated childhood in Indonesia is something about which I would like to know more—how much of a stranger and outsider did he feel there, and how did being in a Muslim country for so many of the important years of his life shape his view of faith and law? Did having a stepfather shape him differently than the childhood of Bill Clinton shaped his own view of women and his own family ideals as well as his own political positions? As a person with a disastrous and complicated childhood, I ask myself some pretty pointed questions and have some pretty unpleasant answers to those questions—but I would like to know those answers for our president as well. Even if a knowledge of such matters would not make me agree with him more, they would allow me to gain a better understanding of the man.
One thing about Mr. Obama as a man is very clear. He is a very cerebral person, an intellectual with a taste for abstraction and given to professorial lectures. As a fellow intellectual, and one given to lecturing without any malicious or insulting intent, I do not fault him for his approach the way many other anti-intellectuals would consider him a snob. Speaking metaphorically, some people are drinking buddies and some people are homework buddies. President George W. Bush is the kind of person who would be a drinking buddy (as would be former President Bill Clinton); President Obama is definitely a homework buddy. He is an undoubtedly intelligent man who is nonetheless very private and very distant from others. He does not radiate with warmth and compassion, nor does he encourage a feeling of intimacy. He has the passions of a zealot, so he is not all brains and no heart, but his heart does not show the warmth of a caring soul.
How will history judge the president and man? It is is far too early to tell, but we may guess. He is a John Quincy Adams without the pedigree, humility, endearing quirks, or moral high ground. He also strikes me as being a president much like Jimmy Carter, or Martin van Buren, a man of common background and considerable political gifts but the touch of a proud patrician. All of those men were one-term presidents. Make of that what you will. Despite my considerable political disagreements with him, on one level I am very glad that a personality like his can, even for one term, win the presidency. After all, he and I are not that far apart in temperament, despite our vast difference in worldviews. Nor are our backgrounds all that different. He spent his childhood in exile in Indonesia after his parents split up, I as an internal exile in the heathen lands of the Confederacy after my parents split up. Life in exile deeply shapes one’s personality and hardens ones convictions into granite.
So I am left in looking at President Obama as a sort of funhouse view reflection, with enough similarities to see a resemblance, but far different coloring (both in pigment and in political affiliation). But my student made a pointed observation about how President Obama did not seem very American to him. That comment may be the most damning of all. If people from outside America do not see one as American, how are people inside America (in what is popularly known as ‘fly-over country’) going to see you as one of your own. In that case, a little less distance and a lot more personal warmth may be just the ticket if one wishes to keep one’s job as the Chief Egghead (er, Executive) of the United States of America.