Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama exhibits calm in the swirl of history

Protean figure inspires devotion in supporters, consternation in critics

Jim Mone / AP

He gives the appearance of a strikingly laid-back victor, this presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a primary night rally in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday.

On the day before the night he made history, Barack Obama shot hoops at the Back Bay Club in Chicago, and called the odd superdelegate or two. Then he and his wife, Michelle, kissed their daughters goodnight and, with a half dozen of their best friends, rode to Midway Airport to catch a flight to St. Paul to claim his prize. He sat on the plane, legs crossed, chuckling, chatting, giving little hint of what roiled within.

Mr. Obama has written of his “spooky good fortune” in politics, and vaulting ambition and self-possession define his rise.

He turned down a prestigious federal appellate court clerkship while at Harvard to work as a community organizer. He wrote an autobiography at the age of 33, and another 11 years later. He brushed aside a liberal mentor who stood in his way in Illinois. After just two years in the United States Senate, he announced that he would run for the presidency and then upended a Democratic Party powerhouse.

On the cusp of becoming the first African-American to capture a major party nomination, Mr. Obama remains a protean political figure, inspiring devotion in supporters who see him as a transformative leader even as he remains inscrutable to critics.

‘Rorschach test’ for voters

He has the gift of making people see themselves in him and offers an enigmatic smile when asked about his multiracial appeal.

“I am like a Rorschach test,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”

He is a liberal who favors regulating Wall Street and stanching housing foreclosures, negotiating with foreign enemies and disengaging from the war in Iraq. He speaks eloquently about America’s divisions of race and class, and says the old rhetoric of racial grievance has exhausted itself.

But his insistence that he can bridge the nation’s ideological chasms without resort to partisan warfare leaves some with the nagging sense that he makes it sound too easy, and that his full measure as a politician has yet to be taken.

He has stumbled and fumbled more than once. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton confounded him, pushing him back on his heels, his irritation too apparent. He falls in love with his words and perhaps his celebrity, acknowledging after Texas that he had become too dependent on arena politics and too aloof in smaller settings.

He is a deliberative fellow in a manic game. When his now-retired pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, offered incendiary views on race and politics, Mr. Obama was slow to recognize how quickly Mr. Wright’s words inflamed voters’ doubts about him.

Michelle Obama, who is also a Harvard-trained lawyer and whose fires often burn hotter than those of her husband, pointedly advises Mr. Obama to forswear the cerebral and embrace the visceral. As Republicans attack him as unknown and untested, Mr. Obama could recall her advice in the months to come.

He was raised literally and metaphorically offshore, in Indonesia by his white mother and in Hawaii by his white grandparents. He is very much an American but tends to view the incongruities of politics with the distancing eye of an outsider.

A life examined

One of the curiosities about Mr. Obama is his professed lack of interest in the writers who pore over that life, trying to deconstruct his fractured family and geography. He claims not to read profiles that pile high in his plane.

“It just encourages the narcissism that is already a congenital defect for a politician,” he says. “I find these essays more revealing about the author than about me.”

The same might be said of Mr. Obama’s autobiography, which is less a straightforward chronicle than a carefully framed coming-of-age narrative. He describes himself as a young man adrift, although few friends recall thinking him so lost.

He carries a reputation as a Natural, and insists on calm. He did not interview each prospective campaign aide, but he laid down a rule: No drama kings or queens welcome. He confides in only a handful of advisers, particularly David Axelrod, the campaign guru with the appreciation for Chicago-style politics, and rarely displays public agitation about the measuring stick of his profession, electoral wins and losses. Told in February that he had won the caucuses in Maine, an overwhelmingly white state that he had expected to lose, he nodded, mumbled “That’s great,” and turned back to a phone call.

Research John McCain at the John McCain Blog:

Get Pre-Approved before going into the dealership.

Bad Credit? No Credit? No Problem!

Visit and purchase from the Barack Obama store:

Visit the NEW Obama Leadership Store!

Visit the NEW Obama Leadership Store!