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Post Paul Levine's "The Obama Enigma"
Created by John Eipper on 01/20/13 6:14 AM

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Paul Levine's "The Obama Enigma" (Paul Levine, Denmark, 01/20/13 6:14 am)

Are we still interested in the subject of American presidents? If so, perhaps some would be interested in an op-ed piece on Barack Obama I wrote for the Danish newspaper, Politiken, in connection with his re-inauguration. It is published today. Congratulations, Mr. President!

The Obama Enigma by Paul Levine

Has there ever been a president like Barack Hussein Obama? Other presidents like Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have divided the American public: Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Bush and Iraq. But the controversy over Obama does not involve what he has done but who he is. "He's a Rorschach test," observed the journalist Don Terry during the 2008 election. "What you see is what you want to see."

Consider this: Obama's political enemies question his very identity. John Sununu, a former Republican governor, said, "I wish this President would learn how to be an American." Dinesh D'Souza, a neoconservative pundit, announced, "The most dangerous man in America currently lives in the White House." Donald Trump, the flamboyant millionaire, even questioned whether the president had been born in the United States. He offered to give $5 million to charity if Obama would publish his passport and college records. Trump said, "President Obama is the least transparent president in the history of this country. There has never been anything like it... We know very little about our president."

The president's admirers are just as passionate. "People don't come to Obama for what he's done," said a prominent Democratic insider in 2008. "They come because of what they hope he can be." Their enthusiasm propelled his meteoric rise from junior Senator from Illinois to President of the United States in merely four years. International recognition of the Obama phenomenon followed swiftly with the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize, again based on who Obama was, not what he had achieved. Already in December 2007, the journalist Andrew Sullivan identified the Obama phenomenon. He advanced three reasons for Obama's unique popularity: his independence, his youth and his face. "Barack Hussein Obama is the new face of America," wrote Sullivan. "A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy."

In fact, Obama's election was preceded by a revolutionary change in American self-perception. In the 1960s the concept of multiculturalism based on identity politics achieved a radical breakthrough. People who were disadvantaged by America's social history identified more with their racial or ethnic group than with the nation. According to Todd Gitlin, identity politics is "the insistence that the foundation of your political being is and ought to remain your race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, nationality or any other category you're born into or gravitate to."

Identity politics thrived in America for three decades. But in the 1980s a new phenomenon appeared on the multiethnic Berkeley campus: the fast-growing population of students of mixed racial origin founded an organization called MISC (Multiracial Intercultural Student Coalition). They confounded supporters of orthodox identity politics because they refused to identify with a single racial or ethnic group. They claimed that they represented something new: a multiracial identity that reflected true American diversity. In other words, an older idea of multiculturalism based on exclusive identity politics was being challenged by a new idea of interracialism based on inclusiveness.

This new interracial consciousness was reflected in popular culture as well. In 1993, Time Magazine placed on its cover what it called "The New Face of America." It featured a computer-created cover of an American "Eve" composed of white, black, yellow, brown and red racial and ethnic features. In the same year, pop star Michael Jackson issued a new music video entitled "Black and White." Jackson used the same Morph 2.0 computer program to blend images of black, white, male, female, Native American and Asian faces. At the same time, a new generation of interracial high and popular culture icons--artists, movie actors, rock stars and sports celebrities-entered the scene. Among the most prominent were dramatist August Wilson, golf champion Tiger Woods, baseball star Derek Jeter, actress Halle Berry, singer Mariah Carey, actor Joaquin Phoenix, musician Alicia Keys and television personality Paula Abdul.

Finally, in the 2000 census, "Multiracial" was added to the list of traditional racial identities. More than five million Americans identified themselves as "multiracial" though many more clearly were. By 2009, the year Obama took office, the Associated Press announced, "Multiracial Americans have become the fastest growing demographic group, wielding an impact on minority growth that challenges traditional notions of race." If these changes are harbingers of the future, then America will become a pluralistic society of a different kind. Instead of multiculturalism within the society we will have multiculturalism within the individual. More than 150 years ago, in "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman sang of the American as a cosmos containing multitudes. Today Leon Wieseltier argues, "The American achievement is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual." He says, "Identity is a promise of singleness, but this is a false promise. Many things are possible in America, but the singleness of identity is not one of them."

Barack Obama was not always the ideal multiracial candidate. In 1995, before he entered politics, Obama published a revealing autobiography, Dreams from My Father. In this beautifully written book, he traces his remarkable life from birth to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. Obama's father abandoned the family when his son was two; he moved to Harvard to study and returned to Kenya soon after. Obama only met his father once again, when he was ten years old. His book is about the search for the missing father.

Despite being raised in a white family environment, Obama was aware of racism at an early age. He notes, "In 1960, the year my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union." As he grew up he embarked on a search for his black roots. "Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant." When he reached adolescence, he began to act out his black rebellion. As he recalls, "I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood."

Obama's embrace of his racial identity was a sign of the times. When a friend from a mixed marriage insisted she was not "black" but "multiracial," Obama disagreed. "That was the problem with people like Joyce," he recalls. "They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people." But when his search for the absent father later takes him to Africa, he discovers the confusion is global. In Kenya, his aunt describes a similar multicultural muddle where her daughter speaks bits of English, Luo, Swahili and German. "Sometimes I get fed up with this," she says. "But I'm beginning to resign myself--there's nothing really to do. They lived in a mixed-up world. It's just as well, I suppose. In the end, I'm less interested in a daughter who's authentically African than one who is authentically herself."

Obama's search for his roots takes him to Kenya, Harvard and Chicago. Soon it becomes clear that his search for the absent father is really a search for his place in the larger community. He learns, "Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men--and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large." Finally, Obama's search for community led him to enter the political arena. In 1996, the year after Dreams from My Father was published, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. His pursuit of the presidency had begun.

Dreams from My Father is a moving racial odyssey that reflects its times. Obama's memoir is part of a long tradition in African-American literature: the story of how a black boy becomes a man. You can even see the theme in the titles of Richard Wright's three most famous books: Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son and Black Boy. But the man who was elected president in 2008 was not quite the same man who wrote the book in 1995. In the new edition, published in 2004 after the death of his mother, Obama wonders why he focused on his missing father when he was raised solely by his mother. "I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book--less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life... I know she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her."

In his second, less personal book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama returned to his complex relations with his parents. He writes, "My fierce ambitions might have been fueled by my father--by my knowledge of his achievements and failures, by my unspoken desire to somehow earn his love, and by my resentments and anger toward him." But it was his mother's "fundamental faith" in the value of human life that shaped those ambitions to study political philosophy, become a community organizer and enter political life.

Indeed, his best biographers emphasize the cosmopolitan character of Barack Obama's upbringing. In Barack Obama: The Story (2012), David Maraniss describes the privileged character of Obama's education. Though raised in modest circumstances, Obama was educated at some of the best schools in the nation. In multicultural Hawaii he attended the exclusive Punahou School. "It was," say Maraniss, "the oldest, largest, most prestigious private school in Hawaii, founded in 1841 for the education of the children of missionaries." When he graduated from Punahou, he entered Occidental College, an elite private university in California. After two years, he transferred to prestigious Columbia University (1981-83). Finally, he took a law degree at Harvard University in 1991.
Though Columbia University was located on the edge of Harlem, Obama spent scant time in the black community. Instead he felt more at home with the group of international students. including several wealthy Pakistanis. One friend, Beenu Mahmood, said, "To be honest, [Obama] never had many black friends. Not that he had anything against that, just that he was part of that other set, the international set." Even his long-term girl friend, Genevieve Jessup, was a white Australian who felt alienated from her own society. Maraniss notes, "If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that 'he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.'"

In his New York years, Obama resolved his identity crisis when he turned twenty-one. Genevieve recalls, "in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black. I told him that. I think he felt very encouraged by my absolute conviction that his future lay down the road with a black woman. He doubted there was any black woman he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, 'No she is out there.'" His friend Beenu Mahmood noticed the same thing. "I saw that switch happen most markedly during the period that I was very close to him. Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world... This was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black."

Obama's embracing of his black identity was a crucial turning point in his personal and political development. But it does not obscure the cosmopolitan character of his life. Another perceptive biographer, David Remnick, describes Obama's complex character and political appeal. In The Bridge (2010), he writes, "In addition to his political views, what Obama proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self--a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man."

But, says Remnick, Obama's self-understanding grew beyond the boundaries of race to include a new global consciousness. "Barack Obama's family, broadly defined, is vast. It's multiconfessional, multiracial, multilingual, and multicontinental," Remnick explains. "He has a Kenyan step-grandmother in a village near Lake Victoria who speaks only Luo and Swahili; a biracial half-brother who speaks fluent Mandarin and trades in southern China; a cousin-by-marriage who is an African-American rabbi in Chicago determined to forge closer relations among Jews, Muslims, and Christians on the South Side." But Obama's unusual background transcends issues of race and ethnicity to embrace class and culture as well. "He has relatives who have been educated in the finest universities in the world, others who live in remote Kenyan towns, another who has lived in a Nairobi slum, yet another, an African half-sister, who wound up in a Boston housing-project with immigration problems." Thus, says Remnick, "As a politician, Obama would make use of that family, asking voters to imagine it-and him-as a metaphor for American diversity."

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on the basis of who he was. But when he ran for re-election in 2012, many early supporters were disappointed with his presidential performance: his failure to close Guantánamo prison, his widening of the war in Afghanistan, and his inability to reign in the destructive culture of Wall Street. Especially his economic policies were controversial. In The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald praises the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as a bold government action in the spirit of FDR's New Deal. ARRA is a large stimulus package that preserved jobs, financed public infrastructure projects, and stimulated innovation in new technology fields. Yet Obama's policies failed to resolve the housing crisis or reduce the high unemployment rate. In Confidence Men (2011), Ron Suskind criticizes Obama for not being bold enough to reform predatory practices in finance capital or regulate Wall Street. Suskind concludes: "A titanic crisis . . . had come and gone, and neither Washington nor Wall Street had fundamentally changed."

President Obama was re-elected by overwhelming support from a coalition of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, single women and young voters. But he received four million fewer votes than in 2008, a sign of discontent among even his admirers. It is still unclear what policies his administration will follow in the coming years. In The New York Review of Books (November 8-21, 2012), Elizabeth Drew writes: "A more important question than what Obama will try to do is, how will he try to do it? Will his manner of governing be very different than it was in the first term?" Drew is uncertain. "He will still be Barack Obama, a contradiction of ambitious and cautious," she says. "He's simply different from the conventional politicians. He's more self-contained, less needy, than almost any president in modern times. . . . He's quite evidently not displeased with himself--and there's much to be pleased with himself about. And Obama's unique personality affects his political dealings. He conducts the business of politics but keeps a certain part of himself in reserve, holds it back."

But one thing is certain. Now as he enters his second term, President Obama will be judged not on who he is but on what he accomplishes. That is the way it should be in a democracy.

JE comments:  I congratulate Paul Levine on this extremely thoughtful analysis for Inauguration Day.  President Obama is indeed an enigma, yet today is the day to wish him the best as he embarks upon his second term--which if history serves as an example, will be fraught with challenges and controversies.

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  • Paul Levine's "The Obama Enigma" (Tor Guimaraes, USA 01/21/13 4:57 AM)
    Paul Levine's op-ed "The Obama Enigma" (20 January) was interesting. I find it hard to disagree with any of his points. Despite many references to well-known journalists, the part of the enigma I find missing and extremely interesting, is how a lower middle-class boy transformed himself from a regular teenager prone to a life of mediocrity into a top student at Harvard Law School. Wow!

    Then we have another very impressive enigmatic outcome: after graduation, this young man goes back home to assist socially and financially disadvantaged people instead of cashing in by working for big corporate interests. Another giant wow! How can we, regular corruptible mortals, ever comprehend such behavior?

    Just as enigmatic, but much less impressive, Obama allowed many of the corrupted officials from the Bush administration to remain in place, and continue ripping off the American people. With few exceptions, corporate power has continued to dominate the social/political agenda. Perhaps we have to charge that to political realities? Since the available alternatives were undoubtedly much worse, I am looking forward to see where this enigma will take the American people in the next presidential term. To relatively better pastures I hope.

    JE comments: The enigma continues...

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  • Paul Levine's "The Obama Enigma" (Istvan Simon, USA 01/21/13 5:46 AM)
    I thank Paul Levine for his interesting essay of 20 January. Nonetheless, I have to make some comments, in which I disagree with the heavy emphasis of the President's "blackness" and racial identity.

    I voted for Barack Obama both times that he ran. I am obviously white, as white as it comes, with Jewish parents. I most certainly did not vote for Obama because he is black or half black. Race just never entered at all in my consideration of why I voted for him. I also voted for President Bush both times that he ran. So, clearly I did not vote for Barack Obama because I am a partisan Democrat either. I am an independent voter, and I voted in all these elections for the man that at the time I thought was best for the country and best for the job.

    Barack Obama is not an enigma at all. He has clear-cut ideas on what makes the United States great. A clear vision for the future of the United States. I agree with him on that future, and that is why I voted for him.

    Barack Obama is also an inspirational speaker. He knows how to talk to the heart of Americans, and he knows how to talk to their brains as well. He is not a demagogue. He brought tears to my eyes when he talked about the picture of the 7 year-old little girl who was gunned down in Connecticut, the little girl that wanted to become a painter, whose drawing hangs in the White House now. He knew that gun control legislation will only pass if the American people demand it. So he spoke to the American people. I hope that enough of us listened, so that this common-sense legislation will pass and be signed into law. Much more is needed in fact. I have written about this before on WAIS, and what I think needs to be law is much stronger than the legislation being proposed. But to everything there is a first step. The gun control legislation that hopefully will be enacted as law, is not the last such bill--it is only the first.

    In one sense Paul Levine's essay was correct about why Barack Obama was elected. He was elected with a very significant majority of the votes, both popular and in the Electoral College, because he got 75% of the Hispanic vote, 95% of the black vote, and a large percentage of the votes of young people. Older generation whites chose Mitt Romney by a sizable majority--so I am with the minority in my own segment of this voting population.

    America is ever changing. That is one of the great things about this country, that embraces all that come to its shores. Mitt Romney lost because he forgot that.

    JE comments: If Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the Great Communicators, Barack Obama might be remembered as a Pretty Good Communicator. But we still haven't heard from Obama any "Morning in America" or "I feel your pain" moment.

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