Ed. note: In the summer of 2006, ELLE’s Editor-at-Large Laurie Abraham traveled with Barack Obama on a two week tour of Africa—almost a year before he announced his candidacy for president. In our December issue of that year, ELLE published Abraham’s 6,000 words foreshadowing his historic run, including her exclusive interview with and keen insights about the man who was elected on November 4th to become our next president.
We’re sitting in the closed compartment of a ferry, churning across Table Bay off Cape Town, South Africa, to the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly two decades. Our party includes a clutch of newspaper reporters, two documentary teams, and the man we’ve all flown 9,000 miles for: Barack Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois— though the “from Illinois” part seems off, an unnecessary afterthought.
With the constant chatter about his presidential potential, Obama, a Democrat, already seems like the country’s man, too big to be fenced in by the silly parochialisms of a single state. This visit is part of his effort to become the world ‘s man. Obama’s domestic bona fides are pretty solid, but a contender for the presidency needs to be equally fluent in international affairs.
Obama doesn’t come out and say all this. He’s been in the Senate for only two years, and he says he’s embarking on this two-week, four-nation tour of Africa in late August in service to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His purpose is to highlight the problems of the continent: diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He doesn’t want to forget Africa’s successes, he’s quick to add: the robust free press in Kenya, the first free elections in 46 years in Congo, in July, and South Africa’s ongoing peaceful transition away from apartheid. Finally, Obama wants to see what America can do to assist Africa, out of compassion and self-interest: “Ungoverned spaces” are a breeding ground for terrorists, Obama pointedly warns, citing the Bush administration’s apparently belated recognition that Somalia is in the process of being taken over by Muslim extremists loyal to Al Qaeda.
When asked about his designs on the White House, as will happen repeatedly even here, Obama will deflect the question with something like, “I’m focusing on my job as a senator from Illinois.” But then, he has a new book out, The Audacity of Hope, which addresses, in his words, the nation’s “most pressing policy challenges…and how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life.” And he signed up for the keynote speech at an Iowa political confab in September that is mandatory attendance for would-be presidential candidates, in the run-up to which an Illinois state politician kicked off a “draft Obama in 2008” movement. The question among the nation’s politicos seems to be not if Obama will run, but when: If Hillary falters, will he emerge to rescue the Democrats in 2008? Alternatively, could he be Ms. Clinton’s running mate, or will the senator who calls “chronic restlessness” one of his vices nonetheless bide his time, build up a record in the Senate, and go for it in 2012?
As for the latter approach, a lengthy legislative record can be as dangerous as it is beneficial, and why mess with your image when the celebrity buzz is already crackling? Handsome and loose-limbed, with a winning smile that routinely reaches his eyes and large Opie ears that keep out the chill of physical perfection, Obama has appeared on Oprah, twice, cracked up Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and scored a mention on the sitcom Will & Grace (he was “Baracking” Grace’s world). He gets 300 speaking invitations a week, according to his office, and he has been feted by Warren Buffett, put on the cover of a men’s fashion magazine, and compared to Bobby Kennedy countless times—including by none other than the Democratic deity’s widow, Ethel.
Right now, though, he’s listening intently to Ahmed Kathrada, a confidant of Mandela’s in prison who will be Obama’s personal guide on Robben Island. Peppering Kathrada with questions, Obama looks like he’s concentrating hard, at one point putting his chin in hand, elbow on knee—The Thinker—and I wonder if he’s working overtime to block out the reporters arrayed around him. We’re trying to keep a respectful distance, but each of us is poised to jump, to slide into the seat next to him, if Kathrada would just unglue from his side.
How could Obama really ignore us, though? Ignore the furry gray boom mike hanging over his head? How irritating it must be. My Barack hates all this hoopla, I think. My Barack just wants to have a heart-to-heart with this noble freedom fighter, this hero. My Barack is different from all the rest of the politicians.
Obama first entered many Americans’ consciousness when the self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” made his instantly legendary debut at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “There is not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America…there’s the United States of America…We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.” Ring a bell?
Who is Your Dream President?
My Barack, however, first turned up in the 400-plus pages of his first book, the 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, which sold more than a half-million paperbacks after the speech. Scribbled in the margins of my copy are countless effusions of astonishment and joy. The United States of America might have a president whose African father propelled himself from herding goats in rural Kenya to Harvard’s doctoral program in economics? We might have a president with a white mother so detached from our racial caste system—or determined to challenge it—that she married the aforementioned black African in 1960, at the age of 18, and then, when that relationship failed and Obama Senior decamped for Kenya, chose for her second husband an Indonesian who promptly moved her and her six-year-old son to Jakarta?
We might have a president who’s sufficiently introspective to tie himself in knots over questions of race? Who was smart and smooth enough to become the first black head of the Harvard Law Review but was willing to admit that as an activist on Chicago’s mean streets in the 1980s he was preoccupied not with his safety but with being black enough? Who dared write that while he believed black nationalism would never improve African-Americans’ material lot, he wasn’t sure whether the country’s blacks could ever empower themselves without hating whites? (This despite the fact that his love and respect for his white mother—and for the white grandparents who helped raise him once he returned to the United States, to Hawaii, at age 10—thrum through his book.)
We might have a president with a past—one, that is, who’ll cop to having a past? Whose book included mention of “trying to get laid” in college, of smoking pot, of doing, even, “a little blow?” In other words, the United States of America might have a president who hasn’t airbrushed away his youthful indiscretions to present his own story as a triumphalist’s fait accompli? We might have a president who traffics in complexity and ambiguity, a man who sometimes doubts himself? What messiness, what worldliness, what realness—what a relief.
My dream president, of course, is not everyone’s. A predilection for the searching, self-conscious type who’s a little angry (not to mention one who dabbled in drugs as a teenager) isn’t universal. More to the point, neither is the predilection for a Democrat. For half of America, George W. Bush is the dream, or at least he was the dream for a considerable time. But though I didn’t immediately realize it, starting that morning on the boat, the Barack of the memoir was in part the man I was pursuing across Africa. Was that Barack, my Barack, still “in da house”—a phrase I’d hear Obama gleefully holler during a speech in Kenya, displaying his much-commented-upon habit of moving effortlessly between the King’s English and black slang? Or had he left the premises?
Khayelitsha, South Africa
For what Obama’s staff called his “AIDS day,” the senator is traveling to a vast tract of corrugated-metal-and-wood-scrap shacks outside of Cape Town, home to an estimated 700,000 black South Africans. If Americans think anything when they think of Africa these days, they think AIDS. What’s less recognized is that the infection rates in South Africa, the richest, best-governed major nation on the continent—our swishy hotel and the attached mall at Table Bay evoke Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—dwarf those of most of its much poorer, more chaotic neighbors.
What’s bedeviling South Africa in particular are the “lunatic-fringe” views of its leaders, as the United Nation’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa has recently charged. South African president Thabo Mbeki has persistently questioned whether HIV causes AIDS; the country’s health minister set up a booth at the International AIDS conference in Toronto touting garlic, beetroot, and lemons as treatments for the disease; and presidential aspirant Jacob Zuma testified in a rape trial this spring that while he did have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, he took a shower afterward to avoid contracting the virus.
In Khayelitsha, Obama steps into, or around, this fray. He’s supposed to meet Zackie Achmat, the country’s leading AIDS activist, but Achmat is late, and his young followers are sitting around a conference table, badgering Obama. As 24-year-old Belinda Madliwa puts it: “What is it your country can do to get the minister of health fired or to step down?” “Well, you know, it’s not my country’s job, or my job, to decide who can be an official for another government. That’s not an appropriate role for me to take. I’m here to listen and learn,” Obama says. He’s right, but as he talks on, he sounds almost cringingly pedantic. On the other hand, it’s impressive that Obama isn’t huddling with his advisers until Achmat arrives.
At other times, Obama will more directly criticize the South African government, but here he’s unwilling or unable to conjure the indignation the group is clearly agitating for. It reminds me of a passage in The Audacity of Hope: “When Democrats rush up to me at events and insist we live in the worst of political times, that a creeping fascism is closing its grip around our throats, I may mention the internment of Japanese Americans under FDR, the Alien and Sedition Laws under Adams…and suggest we all take a deep breath.” In contrast to the community organizer and college antiapartheid activist in Dreams, the 45-year-old Obama portrays himself as allergic to heated overstatement.
Then, suddenly, Obama offers, “When I go to Kenya, I’m probably getting an AIDS test myself, in front of the cameras, just to encourage people to see there’s nothing stigmatizing about getting an AIDS test.” It’s as if Obama’s trying to prove his righteous heart, or maybe just short-circuit the harangue; the public HIV test has been in the works for a while, though not the plan to mention it today. “A lot of times I think leading by example can be very helpful, and that’s something that I’d like to do.”
An anonymous-looking industrial park is the incongruous headquarters for the world’s other antiapartheid icon, former archbishop Desmond Tutu, who emerges from his office to collect Obama wearing sweatpants, a sweater, and a jaunty black leather newsboy cap. He’s teasing and charmingly blunt. “I don’t know if you saw the headlines from the Sunday paper, Blacks are the Biggest Racists,” Tutu says, referring to a banner headline above a story about how South African blacks said in a survey that other blacks were more likely than whites to discriminate against them. “I hope I would be equally nice to a young white senator.” Tutu cackles.
After the two men banter about golf (“I never played. I was just a caddy—a very bad caddy,” is Tutu’s line), the former archbishop cuts to the chase. “You’re born to be a credible presidential candidate,” he says, grinning.
“Now, don’t get me into trouble,” Obama replies, laying his hand companionably on the shorter, stouter man’s back.
“He’s shy,” Tutu says. “Fortunately, since he has my complexion, we won’t see him blushing.”
It’s disappointing how guarded and careful Obama seems so far on this trip. I should have expected the tight control; I’ve read the countless articles about his short tenure in the Senate, the consensus being that his star is still rising in part because he has played it safe, legislatively and rhetorically.
Obama has sometimes denied that characterization—”I don’t think I’ve been constrained in what I say,” he tells me—and at other times has cited the limits of power for a junior senator of the minority party. His agenda as delineated in his book is standard Democratic stuff: phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq (with no specific timetable); extension of health care to more of the uninsured; increased spending on education, including retraining for workers eliminated because of global competition—and to pay for such things a “fiscal discipline…[that] may mean scaling back tax breaks for the wealthiest.” May?
More specifically, furthering his oft-stated goal of “energy independence,” he has proposed that the government pay part of the health care costs of the Big Three automakers in exchange for their agreeing to increase gas mileage on vehicles. He’s also cosponsoring ethics reform and—at the Senate Democratic leadership’s request—he became the lead spokesman on the topic (which got him into an extraordinary spat with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, extraordinary because, as The Chicago Sun-Times noted, it represented “the first time any senator—or any local, state, or federal official of note from either party—has publicly criticized Obama”). In September, teaming with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, he passed his first bill, which sets up computer databases of government contracts and special-interest spending (otherwise known as “pork”) that anyone can use to track government spending.
Obama bends over backward not to be too provocative or partisan in the endless capital press conferences and position papers that are the everyday work of a senator. As a result, he often sounds more scolding to Democrats than the other side. In The Audacity of Hope he waxes almost nostalgic about Ronald Reagan, how he “offered Americans a sense of common purpose that liberals no longer could muster,” and just a few pages later, today’s Democrats are quot;just, well, confused, he writes, “bereft of the energy and new ideas…the party of reaction.”
He describes a breakfast meeting with our current president in which, when switching from chitchat to laying out his policies, George W. Bush’s eyes “became fixed; his voice took on the agitated tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty.” Next, however, Obama is saying how he finds “the President and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else….I still found it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I shared.” Okay, Bush isn’t the devil—even with those scary eyes—but somehow my reaction is, Who cares? The President may be a great guy to have a beer with, as the tired trope goes, but as for his values, they’re different enough from Obama’s, I assume, that the similarities might as well be irrelevant.
“Now we’re really in Africa,” more than one of us remarks as we trail into the airport. It’s a politically incorrect way of saying what’s immediately apparent: Kenya isn’t nearly as Western as South Africa was, not nearly as spiffed up or predictable. The airport in the capital, the country’s largest city, consists of low-slung, shabby concrete buildings, and one of the camera crews, it seems, can’t get through customs without paying a large bribe.
Loitering outside, waiting for the cameramen to cut a deal, I notice people gathering along the road leading from the airport. We’re going to be here when Obama arrives! He flies separately, mostly in military jets, and in the weeks before we left the U.S., we kept hearing about the enthusiastic reception in store for the hometown boy, whose father grew up outside of Kisumu in the rural province of Nyanza, several hours west of Nairobi by car.
Because policemen with nightsticks have cordoned off the small building where Obama is being welcomed by Kenyan officials, the several hundred onlookers have stacked up two or three lines deep along the road. They’re strangely hushed, almost as if they’ve sucked in their breath in anticipation, and before they have a chance to let it out, Obama is gone, hustled into a white U.S. embassy van, tires literally screeching as a convoy of one, two, three, four—count ’em—UN, police, and Kenyan security vehicles race out of the airport.
Now, this seems presidential, I think.
From Nairobi to Kisumu and Back
“Why would you show up for a daylong trip with no petrol?” U.S. embassy press attaché Jennifer Barnes is screaming at the driver of the rickety bus that is supposed to transport the press contingent—which has nearly doubled in size in Kenya—through Nyanza. Because of confusing embassy rules governing Obama’s visit, Barnes isn’t supposed to be babysitting the media, but she has seemed estranged not just from us, but from her assigned country. Yesterday in Nairobi, all she could talk about was the city’s (admittedly bad) crime, and as for the man of the hour, “Our biggest concern is he’ll be trampled,” she volunteered. “Of course we’re concerned about being shot at”—you are?—”but in Kisumu, trampling is more of a concern.” Man.
All that matters is staying with Obama. On fumes, we speed off a few vehicles behind his, and, after a quick pit stop—”Fill this f–king thing up!” an Obama staffer screams. “Don’t lose him!”—we hurtle toward Obama’s first destination of the day.
At first we don’t see it. Turning into the hospital where Obama and his wife, Michelle, who joined him two nights ago, have arrived for his-and-her HIV tests, we jump down from the bus. We start walking forward, then a little faster, and then a few of us are jogging, because laid out before us on the dry grass are thousands and thousands of men (and a smattering of women). They’re chanting, singing,and clapping, piled on top of each other in trees, their legs coiled around the branches like vines, so precariously perched that somebody’s sure to get shoved off, a tree will surely snap. Pushing into a clearing in the middle of the crowd, where Obama waits in a white medical van, I ask a Kenyan radio guy about the rhythmic cries of “Obama.” The language is that of Obama’s Luo tribe, he says, and the song comes from their 2002 election, which ended the 25-year rule of autocrat Daniel arap Moi. Instead of “Everything is possible without Moi,”it’s “Everything is possible with Obama.”
Obama steps out of the van, and the crowd erupts anew, surging against the unarmed police, as if trampling isn’t out of the question. “Hey, hey, no pushing,”Obama yells into a microphone. “Hey, no pushing, no pushing. Everybody relax over there.” Surprisingly quickly, the men begin to comply, settling in for his short talk on AIDS.
Ordinary Kenyans’ infatuation with Obama remains on awesome display throughout the Kisumu area, where, near his grandmother’s homestead, a school is named for him—and, in the days to come, back in Nairobi. In Kibera, perhaps the largest slum in the whole of Africa—a place without running water or regular electricity, where the stink of raw sewage fills the air—Obama will again attract thousands, who alternate between singing praises to him and to a new political party that is only days old.
What’s remarkable to an American eye is how politically aware the poorest Kenyans seem to be. Nairobi has four newspapers, and people who can’t afford the cover price pay five shillings to page through them at roadside stands. Equally remarkable is the unabashed urgency of their need. “Who will feed me, Obama, who will feed me?…Who will clothe me, Obama, who will clothe me?” sing AIDS orphans who live with their grandmothers as part of a CARE project to which Obama donated $14,000 of the $1.9 million, three-book advance he received in 2004. Over and over again, the children sing these sweet, beseeching lyrics: “Sen-a-tor, we love you, who will care for me?”
The Kenyans’ ardor does not cool even when Obama sternly rebukes their country’s leaders for the rampant corruption and “tribalism”(ethnic patronage times 100) that persist despite the election of a “reform” government in 2002. America has its own problems with corruption, he tells an audience of students at the University of Nairobi, “but here in Kenya, it is a crisis.”
Richard Leakey, the white paleontologist whose parents found in East Africa some of the earliest relics of human life, was born and raised in Kenya and has been in and out of the government as a corruption fighter. He lost his legs in 1993 when his plane went down in a suspected assassination attempt. “Usually, when an American comes and mentions [Kenyan corruption],” says Leakey, a tall, rotund 62-year-old with a swath of gray hair and a twinkle in his eye, “we cough gently and ask them if they know we’re a sovereign country. With Obama, we’re like, ‘Hit me again.'” He laughs heartily. “We take off our shirts: ‘Strike me.'” ”
It’s very unusual for anybody to get such adulation, almost hysteria, from the crowds, except the pope, maybe,” he continues. “This country is so desperate for a role model, given all our leaders are rotten to the core, that when we have a man who’s one of us in such an eminent position, we grab at it. It’s a reflection of our own disillusionment.”
In addition to his wife and daughters, Obama is traveling with his half-sister, Auma, and her little girl. A gracious, insightful woman who lives outside London and works for a child-welfare agency, Auma grew up in Kenya with her and Barack’s father, who had four wives and nine children, and who, after returning to Kenya, suffered a number of bitter disappointments, including being ousted from his position as a government economist for not toeing then-president Jomo Kenyatta’s line. A heavy drinker, Barack Obama Sr. died in a car accident in 1982, having visited his son only once, in Hawaii, when the boy was 10.
As told in Dreams From My Father, Auma was Barack’s friend and guide during his homecoming visit to Kenya in 1988, and her take on the attention her brother is commanding 18 years later here is much more personal than Leakey’s. “There were thousands of people shouting, demanding, and asking for him,” she says, “and this is just him as a junior senator, so you know, it’s just—you worry.” She hesitates. “Not to be offensive, but there are crazy people in America as well, with crazy ideas. And at the end of the day, what matters is that he’s a black man. The history of America is quite violent.” I startle when Auma invokes the specter of Martin Luther King Jr.; I shouldn’t, but the role of race in American politics is complicated, contradictory, suitably peculiar for a nation shaped by its struggle with the peculiar institution. Overarching everything is the idea that Obama “seems white,” as we Americans crudely describe a black man who speaks standard English and wears suits. (Michelle Obama recalls first meeting her future husband, when he joined her law firm as a summer associate: “I had lowered expectations because people were so enthralled by this guy. And I was, ‘Yeah, sure, he’s probably just a black man who can talk straight. You know how people say, ‘Oh, he’s so articulate.'”)
One of the more disturbing theories about Obama’s appeal to whites is that we trust him more because he’s African (sort of); social scientists have found that white Americans believe blacks of immigrant stock are harder working, better educated, and less likely to be dangerous than locals descended from slaves. As Noam Scheiber wrote in The New Republic, “The distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ blacks has a rich pedigree in the United States.”The big problem with that hypothesis is that most Illinois voters probably didn’t know about Obama’s African father. He did garner an eye-popping percentage of the white vote in 2004, in a primary in which his main opponents were a white millionaire and the white scion of a Chicago machine family (the general election doesn’t really figure in because he ran against another black, the floridly weird Republican Alan Keyes), but until his almost mythic convention speech, his ancestry had not been highlighted in his campaign. And it may have yet to be absorbed by many Americans. En route to Africa, I talk to a well-informed South African photographer who’s been living in the United States for 24 years and adores Obama but is surprised to hear about the Kenyan connection. “I thought he’d just changed his name as an adult, like Muhammad Ali,” he says.
Obama definitely doesn’t present himself as a race man. (For the record, he says that these days he believes blacks can empower themselves without hating whites. “We’ve seen progress on that front,” he says.) As a senator, he has insistently filtered his progressive goals through a prism of class, not race. After Hurricane Katrina, he stood out for refusing to pin the Bush administration’s bungled response on racial prejudice, preferring to cite the White House’s long-standing disregard for the poor. “I think there was a set of assumptions made by federal officials that people would hop in their SUVs and top off with a $100 tank of gas and [get some] Poland Spring water,”he told The Chicago Sun-Times.
While Auma is no doubt someone who’s acutely mindful of the color of her brother’s skin, she says it’s not in his makeup to take anything other than a “colorless” approach to politics. “I’m sure Barack doesn’t go around saying, ‘I’m a black guy, I’m going to talk about this to make my black brothers and sisters feel good.'”
Obama has had one run-in with the Congressional Black Caucus—who wanted him to pledge to filibuster a conservative judge—but it got very little public attention. And from a cold political perspective, the “not black enough” label probably wouldn’t be so bad for his career, anyway—as a senator and presidential hopeful, Obama must attract heaps of white votes. (In a twist on how Obama’s heritage might appeal to whites, black Newsweek correspondent and author Ellis Cose tells me that the senator’s personal story helps mute any “not black enough” sentiment because blacks identify with the romance of going to Africa to find their roots.)
Still, Obama is sensitive to the widely batted-around notion that he’s an avatar of a brave new “postracial” world. Yes, he writes in Audacity of Hope, he’s “witnessed a profound shift in race relations in [his] lifetime….But as much as I insist that things have gotten better, I am mindful of this truth as well: Better isn’t good enough.”
There are two scenes in the book that get at the special chord Obama touches with whites. In one, Obama is listening to a black colleague in the state legislature, “John Doe,” give “a passionate peroration on why the elimination of a certain program was a case of blatant racism.” Seated next to Obama is a white lawmaker, a Democrat, who turns to him and says: “You know what the problem is with John? Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white”—the plain subtext being that Obama doesn’t have that unsettling effect.
Then there is Obama’s encounter with West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, who blocked civil rights legislation early in his career but is now among the more progressive and admired old bulls in the Senate. Soon after Obama’s arrival in the Senate, he called on Byrd in his office. The two talked about Senate rules, the Constitution, and the history of the Senate that Byrd wrote. It’s “remarkable” the senator had time to write, Obama commented, followed by this exchange:
“Oh, I have been very fortunate,” [Byrd] said, nodding to himself. “Much to be thankful for. There’s not much I wouldn’t do over.” Suddenly he paused and looked squarely into my eyes. “I only have one regret, you know. The foolishness of youth…”
We sat there for a moment, considering the gap of years and experience between us.
“We all have regrets, Senator,” I said finally. “We just ask in the end, God’s grace shines upon us.”
He studied my face for a moment, then nodded with the slightest of smiles.
This passage, I swear, brought a tear to my eye. Absolution from our sins, our own and our forefathers’ sins against blacks, that’s what many whites yearn for, those who aren’t outright bigots, anyway. And Obama—raised by a bookish, sensitive white woman who always had to be on alert, on the lookout for the wrongs people might commit against her son, who liked to tell him, “Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet”—instinctively knows how to give it.
Masai Mara National Reserve
“Everything is possible with Obama…. Everything is possible with Obama”—the lyrics keep replaying in my head as the trip winds down. Pretty naive of these Kenyans, I think, pretty unrealistic.
It’s Obama’s wife, Michelle, who gets me pondering more deeply my own—and other Americans’—high expectations of her husband. Michelle is only a few inches shorter than Barack’s 6’2″ and attractive without seeming to have to work at it; a vice president for community affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, she has become almost a caricature in the media—the ballbusting wife who keeps her husband’s ego in check, the working mom who demands that her man share the care of their two young daughters (the three days a week that he’s in Chicago, that is, where Michelle and the girls live). The caricature isn’t exactly wrong (“I’m not one of those wives who just says, ‘Do what you need to do,'” she tells me. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be present in our children’s and family’s lives'”), it just misses her sophistication, warmth, and palpable respect for her husband.
Michelle says she’s “suspicious” of the adoration Barack receives, which has gone so far that one political consultant labeled him the Democrats’ “black Jesus.” “I would just caution people to believe in Barack Obama not because it makes them feel good,” she says, sitting in an open-air restaurant at the ecotourism lodge where we’re staying, “but because he’s someone who’s worth believing in, which means you have to believe in him when he makes mistakes, or when he falls.”
But Barack does make people feel good—there’s nothing she can do about it. My “wow” moments in Africa came when I heard him extemporize on, say, the ins and outs of tariff protections in the United States versus the European Union versus Africa. Incredible, I’d think, standing under a tree at a small press conference (Obama as village elder), his knowledge of this arcane matter is so layered and lucidly expressed. It’s not that I’m all wonk—or that he is—it’s just that this trip was a better forum to showcase his omnivorous mind than the talent that most distinguishes him from other politicians on the U.S. stage: his ability to move large audiences, to appeal to peoples’ better selves and give them that thrilling take-charge feeling: We can change the system. ”
He’s an amazing speaker; he connects with an audience like no one else in the Democratic party,” says the left’s current guru, cognitive scientist George Lakoff. “He understands that empathy is what’s behind progressive ideas, and that it is universal—it’s what this country’s been about in its best form.quot; Go to YouTube, and you can witness Obama’s power—hear the crowd at a Louisville, Kentucky, stadium, for instance, whooping at his stump-speech mantra “I’ve had enough,” as in, “I have had enough of tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor, and the middle-class squeeze for working families—I’ve had enough!” Stalking the stage, microphone in hand, Obama feeds off the crowd’s emotion, reveling in what he’s told me is the “animal pleasure” of the experience, gesticulating in the air like a riled-up orchestra conductor. “There are times when you know you’ve just got ’em,” he says. “It’s like call-and-response in the black church.”
Part and parcel to the “feel-good” effect is that people of all colors and creeds find themselves strongly identifying with Obama—a phenomenon he’s well aware of. “I do have a lot of different pieces, different people and cultures in me,”he says. “My mother told me toward the end of her life, ‘I didn’t leave you a lot of wealth, and I didn’t leave you a fancy title, but I left you a really interesting life,’ and she’s right.”
That rapport is obviously a huge advantage for a presidential candidate, but his wife isn’t the first one to hint at the possible danger of the promiscuous identification Obama engenders. As the former treasurer of his political action committee, Valerie Jarrett, told The American Prospect, “Because he can click with so many different kinds of people, the expectation is that because I clicked with him, he’s going to agree with me.”
Embarrassingly, what was nagging at me was that Obama wasn’t literally more like me. I identified with the brash, discontented guy in Dreams from My Father so much that I forgot that person was much younger, less formed. “I certainly had more of an edge when I wrote that book,” he tells me. “You know, you get older, and you’re more forgiving of yourself and other people.”
More crucially, I forgot that Obama has what it takes to be angling for the highest office in the land. In his new book, he writes about the impact of the media scrum on senators. When “a single ill-considered remark can generate more bad publicity than years of ill-considered policies, jokes got screened, irony became suspect, spontaneity was frowned upon, and passion was considered downright dangerous. I started to wonder how long it took for a politician to internalize all this, how long before the committee of scribes and editors and censors took residence in your head.”
Obama suggests he’s not yet so stunted, but in small scale, when he’s not working a crowd, he can seem so sublimely cool and confident that his manner veers toward haughtiness. Unlike the other great Democratic politician of the past 20 years, Bill Clinton, Obama’s intelligence isn’t softened by a desire to please, to be liked by everyone he meets. (Granted, Clinton’s beguiling neediness is likely wedded to his tragic flaw, the sexual grasping. It’s not a quality Obama shares, says Michelle, and watching her husband in action for a couple of weeks, I completely buy it. “I dated men who were unfaithful types,”she says. “The hole in themselves they have to fill is filled by [sexual conquest]. Barack has holes, but that’s not what feeds whatever’s missing—that’s just not his issue.”)
The other risk for someone who people believe is “just like me” is that when he inevitably isn’t, he’ll be judged inauthentic. As for my category error, it’s foolish to confuse spontaneity and naturalness with sincerity. Relatedly, there is grumbling from the left wing of the party, as represented by the boisterous blogging set, that the conservative positions Obama has taken—on withdrawing from Iraq, say, or his vote against capping credit card interest rates—bespeak inauthenticity, or just an unacceptable move to the center to improve his chances at the presidency.
But what is an authentic politician, anyway? How is it that John McCain—who, despite his overall conservatism, has taken up a number of so-called Democratic causes and then tacked toward the religious right in the run-up to 2008—is considered the genuine article, while Hillary is deemed a manipulative, ambitious fake for supporting the war in Iraq and for talking about the need to minimize abortions while still strongly supporting women’s right to choose? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s in our nature—American, Kenyan, human—to irrationally sanctify politicians, then punish them for failing us. “As soon as a head goes too high here,” Leakey said, “it gets lopped off.” Is it possible to bring a little of the wisdom of parenting to American civic life, to be satisfied with the “good enough” politician? At the risk of agreeing with Obama’s wife, I’d say it’s in our country’s best interest to let him keep the very large and sensible head he has on his shoulders.