Psychiatric therapy is often considered a helping profession, but not right now when the press pack is off on one of its "Have Analytic Couch, Will Travel" frenzies. These days, even graying pundits are Forever Jung when it comes to offering psychological assessments of Barack Obama.
Since the 2010 electoral drubbing, the president has been alternately described by armchair shrinks as confident and insecure, shrewd and guileless, resolute and timid along with -- fearless and feckless. Every press conference utterance, every account of a White House meeting, every anecdote by a presidential insider is pounced on and parsed for its revelations about the president's inner life and character.
Obama is probably the most emotionally controlled president in modern times. Which is why it is fascinating that virtually none of these shrink-wrapped commentaries ever refers back to Obama's 1995 coming-of-age autobiography, "Dreams from My Father."
The book may not be literally true in all respects. Obama admits to being a journalistically unreliable narrator: "For the sake of compression, some of the characters are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology." But when it comes to Advanced Obama Studies, this eloquent yet self-conscious autobiography remains as good as we are likely to get until long after its author leaves the White House.
Having somehow never read "Dreams from My Father" during the 2008 campaign, I picked it up the other day looking for fresh insights into the Obama presidency. There is, of course, little new that can be said about the grand theme of Obama's emotional quest for a dead Kenyan father that he last saw as a 10-year-old. We are also beyond the point of easy amusement at the loving attention that Obama lavishes on a "dynamic young pastor" named Jeremiah Wright.
What intrigues me instead are small anecdotes and drive-by sentences that were rarely mentioned during the heady rush of the 2008 primaries. Now, though, these once-unremarkable bits and pieces leap off the page. It is hyperbolic to claim that the truth about Obama has been lying in plain sight all along like Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter." But, at minimum, stray passages like these are rich with retrospective irony as Obama approaches the halfway mark of his term in the White House:
"The first thing to remember is how to protect yourself."
These words were spoken by Indonesian stepfather Lolo after Obama returned home with an "egg-sized lump" after getting hit by a rock by an older boy. Lolo, the second husband of Obama's mother, is portrayed as someone beaten down by Indonesian politics but eager to instruct a small American boy in the arts of being a man. He immediately bought Obama boxing gloves and they sparred in the backyard: "My arms burned; my head flashed with a dull, steady throb."
But – unlike almost anyone else's autobiographical reminiscences involving boxing gloves – there was never in Obama's retelling the moment when he stunned the schoolyard bullies with his new-found pugilistic skills. Instead, Obama ends his story with this life lesson from Lolo: "If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who is strong. But [it is] always better to be strong yourself. Always."
Without getting too fanciful (or Freudian), it is worth wondering if these long-ago words about making peace with the strong crossed Obama's mind as he was negotiating his tax-cut compromise this week with congressional Republicans.
"I tried to explain some of this to my mother once, the role of luck in the world, the spin of the wheel."
During his high-school druggie years ("Pot had helped and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it"), Obama toyed with the nihilistic attitude that effort is futile since life is so random. Judging from the 2010 elections, Obama might be tempted again to wonder about the karmic justice of the world.
Luck had been Obama's companion through most of his political career: He would not be president right now if John Kerry had chosen someone more famous than an Illinois state senator to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama romped into the White House with the biggest Democratic victory margin since Lyndon Johnson, in large part because the financial world collapsed just as John McCain was gaining traction after the 2008 Republican Convention.
But now the wheel has spun again -- and all the White House spin cannot prevent Obama from being blamed for the Great Recession.
"I was impatient in those days, busy with work and unrealized plans, and prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions."
With the conspicuous exception of Silent Cal Coolidge who fell into a deep depression while in the White House, it is impossible to think of a modern president who ever regarded other people (aka: the voters) as "unnecessary distractions." Richard Nixon may have hated other people, but he certainly was garrulous about his vendettas on the White House tapes.
Running through "Dreams from My Father" are all the times that Obama retreated into his personal fortress of solitude. The quote above comes from his brief discussion of his student days at Columbia University. But Obama hits the same lonely guy theme when he describes his early days as a community organizer in Chicago: "When I wasn't working, the weekends would usually find me alone in an empty apartment, making do with the company of books."
As much as a certain segment of the electorate -- Democrats, in particular, since the days of Adlai Stevenson -- craves a bookish intellectual in the White House, this may not be a formula for winning over doubters in Congress. Successful presidential political persuasion (think Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton) is usually built around backslapping camaraderie and, especially in the case of LBJ, arm-twisting intimidation.
Obama is, of course, a president who literally wrote himself into the Oval Office with his autobiography and rhetoric. While his honesty about his years of searching is a compelling part of his political persona, Obama often comes across in "Dreams from My Father" as someone who prefers a cigarette to the company of others. Even though Robert Gibbs insists that he has not seen the president smoke in nine months, there is little evidence that Obama finds cajoling senators to be more satisfying than the heady mixture of tobacco and nicotine.
"In classes and seminars, I would dress up these impulses in the slogans and theories that I discovered in books, thinking – falsely – that the slogans meant something."
Obama ended his Tuesday press conference not with an attack on recalcitrant Republicans but with an assault on "sanctimonious" liberal purists who would never compromise on extending the Bush tax cuts. The extent of the beleaguered president's pique at the left wing of his own party seemed puzzling to many at a time when Obama needs all the supporters he can find.
Against this backdrop, Obama's impatience with ideologues is a striking motif of "Dreams from My Father." The quotation above is Obama's way of belittling his own tendency to over-intellectualize decisions like becoming a community organizer. But Obama is also constantly making little jabs at true believers who fall under the spell of abstract doctrine: "Two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature and arguing with each other about Trotsky's place in history."
Even though it is unlikely to convince conservatives who fervently believe that the president is a dangerous left-winger, Obama certainly comes across as a liberal pragmatist in his autobiography. Toward the end of the book, long after Indonesia has disappeared from his life, Obama goes out of his way to praise Lolo as the embodiment of "practical people who knew life was too hard to judge each other's choices, too messy to live according to abstract ideals."
That passage, written in a completely different era and context, comes very close to describing Obama's governing style since his shellacking.
"Barack, you've got to stop worrying about whether people like you. They won't."
That blunt comment was Obama's hard-knocks introduction to community organizing by the man who hired him to work in Chicago. It is also a line that might -- just might -- be still rattling around in Obama's head as he tries to salvage his presidency in the face of the most daunting rejection of his political career.