The Big Idea

Notes Toward a Theory of Obama

What we’ve learned so far about the president.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama began his presidency with an unusual attribute: that the country already understood him, or thought it did, from his books. The story he told in Dreams From My Father and reinforced in The Audacity of Hope was about a man of multiple worlds who struggles to come to terms with his father’s abandonment and a confounding racial identity. Obama resolves his rootlessness and anger by committing himself socially, religiously, and, eventually, politically. He depicts his mature self as unusually grounded, able to see other points of view and to bridge chasms.

The protagonist of these books is a persuasive and appealing character—so much so that he left little demand for alternative explanations. As time goes by, though, Obama’s Obama feels less and less satisfying. It’s not that the author’s projection of himself is distorted in any obvious way, but rather that it leaves too much unexplained—his ambition, his aloofness, his fundamental beliefs, if any. It’s too soon to offer an interpretation of our president. But after four months in office, we can see some emerging themes.

He sees the middle ground as high ground. Candidates who talk about bringing people together, being uniters not dividers, or changing the tone in Washington are usually blowing happy smoke. At this point, however, Obama’s focus on reconciliation is clearly more than shtick. We saw this impulse at work when he made pre-emptive concessions on his stimulus package in an unsuccessful effort to win Republican support. We saw it in another way when he personally brokered a compromise between the French and Chinese presidents at the G20 summit in London. Every few days, it seems, Obama, tries for a “new beginning”—with Iran, Cuba, the Muslim world, even Paul Krugman. Engaging with opponents animates him more than hanging with friends.

This is a wonderful instinct that is bettering America’s image and making domestic politics more civil. But listening is not a moral stance, and elevating it to one only highlights the question of what Obama really stands for. The consensus-seeker repudiates torture but doesn’t want to investigate it; he endorses gay equality but not in marriage or the military; he thinks government’s role is to do whatever works. I continue to suspect him of harboring deeper convictions.

He’s the decider for real. Accounts of Obama’s decision-making depict him driving process as well as result. Faced with a tough call about whether to declassify additional Bush administration torture memos, Obama called a debate, listened intently, and finished by dictating the next day’s press release announcing the release of the documents. Another insider ticktock has him personally directing the futures of GM and Chrysler. Advisers who play what are supposed to be honest-broker, facilitating roles at the White House either play different roles (Larry Summers) or don’t play much role at all (Jim Jones). Obama sees himself as ringmaster as well as star performer.

The president’s knack for deep dives into policy questions is undeniably impressive. But as quick a study as he is, his supreme self-confidence may shade into overconfidence. He shows signs of suffering from the arrogance that often accompanies brilliance. It’s unlikely, for instance, that Obama can function as his own grand strategy guru on foreign policy. But he doesn’t seem inclined to give that job to anyone else.

He likes it hot. If you have a friendly conversation with someone close to Obama, he or she is likely to marvel at the president’s comfort level with crisis. This is a man who plays it cool at all times but has never liked standing still. He ran for Congress prematurely and lost, then ran for the Senate prematurely and got lucky. He was quickly bored in the Senate, where it took too long to get things done. When he was thinking about running for president, his question was whether the moment would be ripe for a great leader.

He needn’t have worried. Obama has more troubles to deal with, foreign and domestic, than any president since FDR. One day last month, he faced decisions about the fate of the auto industry, a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, a North Korean missile threat, and a flood in Fargo, N.D. “What is this, a West Wing episode?” David Axelrod quipped, according to the New York Times. The question here is capacity, not capability. Can any one person simultaneously manage so many issues in the hands-on way Obama insists on managing them?

He’s ruthless. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Obama described his economic policy as “ruthless pragmatism.” Interesting choice of modifiers. Obama has a healthy disdain for the overrated virtue of political loyalty. Around the nomination process, this has been slightly chilling to watch. If you’re useful, you can hang around with him. If you start to look like a liability, enjoy your time with the wolves. Before the inauguration, Christopher Hitchens described Obama as feline in his demeanor. The president is catlike also in his lack of evident affection for the people who take care of him. His cracks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner about Hillary Clinton being an envious loser, Larry Summers’ woman problem, and training his dog not to pee on Tim Geithner skirted cruelty. Obama’s jokes about himself were about how great everyone thinks he is.

A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.