Monday, April 13, 2009

Conservatives and the Authentic Obama

One of the things I found as a Hillary supporter during the Democratic primaries was that it is very difficult to get a handle on Barack Obama. Obama initially had cache on the left because of his early opposition to the war, but he also had a magic with moderate Democrats that I had a hard time understanding. Obama never quite fit the usual dichotomies. To give one example, when Obama started running, he was a relatively young guy for a presidential level politician and he played around with generational themes of displacing baby-boomers like Hillary (and myself). But I also view Obama as having a stern, fatherly quality that especially came through in talking about issues of responsibility. That makes him seem old in a way that Bill Clinton or George Bush will never be old.

So what was Obama, the young up and comer or the fogie waiting to get old. I never came up with an answer and the question seemed somehow awkward and irrelevant.

Not that anybody else did any better. Tons of ink were spilled by smart writers like Debra Dickerson trying to figure out whether Obama was not black enough, too black, or whether and how blackness figured into Obama's personal and political equation.

They got nowhere for the same reason I got nowhere. For some not quite definable reason, the black/not black dichotomy dichotomy wasn't applicable when applied to Barack Obama and there wasn't a good substitute for that dichotomy in thinking about Obama in relation to race.

Conservatives are having an even harder time nailing down Obama's personality and it's not just a matter of failing to attach the usual pejoratives to him. Obama definitely hasn't had a moment where he reveals the "weakness" that right-wingers see in all non-conservatives. Apparently, Obama did not kowtow to the Saudi king. He didn't show weakness with the Somali pirates. He hasn't backed down on Timothy Geithner's weird hybrid approach to the bank bailout either.

And this has left some political conservatives wondering if there is any real core to Obama. According to Rex Murphy of the Toronto Globe and Mail:
Of the many speeches Mr. Obama has made, which one has said to you this is him? This is the irreducible, essential Barack Obama - this is why he's in politics. You will find it a frustrating challenge: His statements blur into one another, no one speech distinguished by the authentic charge of words spoken from the deepest part of himself . . .

What are the most important issues for Mr. Obama? What are the cornerstone beliefs of this new President? What does he have "within which passes show"? He glides from one part of his mammoth agenda to the other, smooth, cool and charming all the way. But his effortless equanimity poses the question: If it were another agenda, a contrary agenda even, would he glide equally smooth, cool and charming over it? I don't think we know. He doesn't offer any real affective clues.
Having written about Obama's "cool androgyny" myself, I've experienced Murphy's uncertainty in dealing with Obama's "smooth, cool and charming" personality. Conservatives have a special problem with this though. The right has a taste for a politics of big, showy gestures that both reveal the core beliefs of a political actor and define the nature of a political moment. For conservatives, the biggest moment of Ronald Reagan's presidency was the gesture of calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." By doing so, Reagan defined both himself as an authentic conservative and champion of freedom and the real nature of the U.S./Soviet conflict at the end of the Cold War.

George Bush was forever in search of this kind of "perfect gesture" and tried to demonstrate his own authentic personality a number of times. His post-9-11 appearance with a bullhorn in New York, the "either you're with us or against us" speech, and all of the "dead or alive" and "mission accomplished" prattle were attempts for Bush to provide illumination concerning the inner Bush and the true nature of the war on terror.

None of it worked, but conservatives have a hunger for this kind of showy authenticity. This is one of the factors behind the Fred Thompson boomlet in 2007 and a big reason why conservatives were ultimately able to unite behind John McCain even though they thought he was a phony.

If there's anything McCain is good at, it's revealing his "authentic self" in dramatic ways.

With Obama, conservatives are always going to be very frustrated because he avoids using the bully pulpit of the presidency as a way to reveal his true nature.

As somebody who likes to have a grasp on people in leadership, I share that frustration.

But ultimately, the difficulty of pinpointing Obama's personality is a good thing. It means that all of us can focus on the extent to which his policies and actions measure up to the current demands of his position. It's somewhat of a mixed bag with me. I'm highly favorable toward Obama's foreign policy and domestic agenda in relation to health care, energy, and education, disagree with the Obama administration's policies on secrecy and the legal culpability of the Bush administration and am up in the air on the bank bailout. At the same time, I think Obama's doing a great job of measuring up to the full demands of the presidency in the post-Bush era. Given the tremendous damage the Bush administration did to American prestige and the governing capacity of the federal bureaucracy, the Obama administration has had to act on a large number of fronts at once and they've done an admirable job of stopping up many of the holes in the dykes.

And I suspect that one of the reasons Obama is doing so well is that he doesn't feel much of a need to show off his "authentic self."

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