“Nearly 4 years after Barack Obama was elected to the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, the question remains: who is he?”
So opened an October 22, 2012 piece by Jerry Schwartz of the AP.
It’s remarkable that such a piece would be written in the fourth year of a presidency about the most observed person on earth. Schwartz and the many others who wrote similar pieces weren’t talking about the nonsense over the president’s birth certificate but rather a lingering sense that it was difficult to get a handle on the core of Barack Obama.
As Schwartz wrote, “by now, we should have a fix on the man who is asking for a second term. But still we ask: who is Barack Obama?”
Not surprisingly coming from a man introspective, or self-obsessed, enough to have written two autobiographies by his early forties, Barack Obama is well aware of his own elusive definition. In the prologue to The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote: “I served as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
Everyone is complicated and if we look closely enough, most of us are more multifaceted than our daily lives present. But as this president moves into a period in which he will never run for office again, I think the secret of Barack Obama might be his utter normalcy. He’s a middle-aged rich guy who, left to his own devices and desires, seems to enjoy living life like a lot of middle-aged rich guys.
Look at the president on vacation. He goes to Hawaii and plays golf. He goes out to eat at NOBU, an outrageously delicious and outrageously expensive Japanese restaurant that describes itself as a “magnet for food lovers and celebrities.” Or as the New York Times succinctly put it, “NOBU: the name says it all.” This is not Applebee’s but more the sort of place Robert DeNiro, an investor, hangs out or Charlie Sheen, who lives not far from the Malibu NOBU, likes to take dates.
I love the place, particularly if someone else is paying. But it’s safe to say that only very wealthy Hollywood types and investment bankers typically think of it as a family outing.
As Ashley Parker observed in the New York Times, Barack Obama didn’t go to church on Christmas or Christmas Eve and in fact has only gone to church 18 times since he became president. “Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual,” Parker wrote for the Times. But today fewer and fewer people go to church even on Christmas. “His religious habits appear to be in step with the changing America,” the Times rightly notes. Like many people, particularly the urban and affluent, going to church is clearly not particularly important to President Obama and he sees no reason to pretend otherwise.
Back in Hawaii, where he went to high school, the president not surprisingly spends time with his old high school pals. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Maraniss has written the definitive biography of the president, Barack Obama, The Story. He describes Obama’s crowd as “a self-selected group of boys at Punahou School who loved basketball and good times.” They “call themselves the Choom Gang. Choom is a word meaning ‘to smoke marijuana.’”
The Choom Gang was a bunch of jockey stoner kids and Barack Obama, who then went by “Barry,” was their natural leader. “Barry popularized the concept of ‘roof hits’: when they were chooming in a car all the windows had to be rolled up so no smoke blew out and went to waste; when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling.” As Maraniss wryly notes, this “was the anithesis of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled.” If the Choom gang sounds like something out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, that’s the point; pretty typical for the era.
So what we have here? A 52-year-old multi-millionaire who takes his family to Hawaii, eats at a wildly expensive celebrity hangout, takes his old high school stoner pals golfing on some of the most elite courses in the world, and on Christmas stays home with his family. I’ll be honest, if you take the “president” out of this title, that sounds exactly like the Christmas many of my more successful friends, particularly those I know from television work, would find ideal. It’s really the dream Christmas of a rich, aging yuppie.
Yes, Barack Obama’s father is a fascinating, strange character (worthy of a book: Dreams of My Father), and his mother was a restless idealist who lived in interesting parts of the world, but from high school on, Barack Obama is very much a product of America’s meritocracy. He was a smart suburban kid who took a while to find his way through a series of elite schools. That he was drawn to Nelson Mandela’s cause at Occidental College makes him like tens of thousands of other college students at the time across America. There seems to be nothing exceptional about his level of commitment to any particular cause or passion.
Like many who come out of the finest law schools with a valuable degree but not a passion for practicing law, he bounced around trying to find the right niche. As Jodi Kantor describes in her excellent book, The Obamas, it wasn’t until Barack Obama ran and was elected to the U.S. Senate that he found tangible success. He was 43. And that is a very familiar pattern for many of his generation: pursuing elite degrees followed by a search for work that is exciting and fulfilling.
How will history regard this president? It’s hardly a secret that the overwhelming majority of the media who cover the president were entranced by his very election. The emotional pull of the first African-American president combined with his soaring rhetoric gave more than Chris Matthews a “thrill up the leg.”
Now it’s safe to say for many that thrill is wearing off and historians who didn’t stand moist eyed in Grant Park in November 2008 will take a much more objective look at the president’s record. With the exception of the unknown outcome of Obamacare, it is so far one that most on the left would harshly criticize were it a Republican administration. During the last five years, the stock market has hit record highs while poverty has soared to record highs. Astoundingly, more than 16 million Americans have resortedto food stamps; a staggering 43% increase in just five years. There are fewer full-time jobs in America today than when president Obama took office. Income inequality, which was decreasing if only a little during Bush’s term, has now soared to record heights. In short, the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer while the middle class has shrunk. .
A radical? No. A liberal who is most comfortable with the elite? Yes, that will probably be more on target.