The enigma that is Barack Obama grows day by day. Contradiction after contradiction, abrupt gear shifts, perpetual motion that never reaches a destination. 'Obscene' Wall Street bonuses suddenly transmute into well earned rewards for a good guy golfing buddy; the imperative to act boldly on the jobs crisis means placing it the callous hands of Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley of health care fame; the plotting of exit strategies from Afghanistan by 2011 becomes a 'long as we have to' occupation. All these contrapuntal reversals against a sound track of non-stop exhortation and a restless shuttling from one photo-op to another. Who is this guy, anyway?
A few elements of Obama's personality are now evident: a strong narcissistic streak, an ingrained sense of superiority, a nimbleness - intellectual and political - enabled by the incredible lightness of his conviction about anything, an audacious ambition yet no gumption for a fight. Behind these traits, there is something even more basic discernible. Obama is two people, one superimposed on the other. The visible, surface man is the epitome of an enlightened, Ivy League, socially responsible liberal. This is Obama the community organizer (albeit an exceptionally non-confrontational one), Obama the African American political activist who attends Jeremiah Wright's cosmopolitan church, Obama the orator who routinely hits the high 'Cs' of the call to conscience, Obama the optimist who appeals to, and for the better angels of our idealistic American selves. This is Obama the African-American who moved enough voters to be elected President of the United States.
To this portrait, we must juxtapose the other Barack Obama - the Barack Obama who has surfaced as he quickly shed his 'liberal' skin amidst the trappings of the White House. This other personality, I contend, is the underlying one - truer to the man's core nature. This is the Obama who twice in his young career sought out positions in big corporate law firms; this is the Obama who was raised by three Kansans who instilled in him conservative heartland values; this is the Obama who relishes wealth and what it can buy; this is the Obama who feels more at ease with his Wall Street buddies (Jaime Dimon, et al) playing golf than with anyone of the Move On American crowd; this is the Obama who chose as his trusted confidant that unscrupulous, liberals-be-damned fixer - Rahm Emanuel; this is the Obama who absorbed the spirit of Ronald Reagan's America he himself has said stands as the model of inspirational leadership.
Far-fetched? Let's take a clear eyed look at what President Obama actually has done and said. He placed his supposedly signature health care reform initiative in the hands of those dedicated to thwarting it, he has curried favor with the criminally incompetent financial establishment, he orphaned the proposal to help underwater homeowners through the bankruptcy courts, he stiffed the trade unions on the loosening of rules for organizing workers, he has retained all of Bush's policies on surveillance, he has refused the slightest chastisement of the CIA and their mercenaries, he has retained Bush's practice of Executive statements interpreting legislation, he has followed a behind closed doors style of policy-making, he has followed the Pentagon hawks in escalating the war in Afghanistan, he has made repeated advances toward the evangelical right. This is the behavioral pattern of a deeply conservative personality and conventional thinker who tips his hat to every establishment he encounters.
The evidence supports my thesis that this latter Obama is the truer personality, and that it has liberated itself now that the man is at the apex of his achieved ambition. There is, of course, a more prosaic explanation of Obama's repudiation of the ideas and outlook that won him the White House. It argues that his about faces and incongruous acts merely reflect practical political calculations. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny, though. First, Obama's conduct in the White House has severely weakened his political position to the point where he managed to resuscitate a moribund Republican Party while putting at risk reelection of the Democratic Congress and himself. Second, Obama initiated most of these reversals in the early months of his administration when he was still riding high in the polls and had every opportunity to take the initiative.
The unhappy conclusion is that we have in Obama a President who is what we used to call a moderate Republican before the species became extinct. Moreover, someone who is very much a man of his times - those times being the 1980s and 1990s. That means suspicions of government programs (last week Obama declared that New Deal thinking wasn't applicable to day's problems), a strong belief that we should always give private interests the benefit of the doubt, an assumption that the rich deserve their riches, and an insensitivity to the plight of salaried Americans (Obama's push for a Bipartisan Commission to recommend budget cutting measures to be voted 'up or down' by Congress clearly had Social Security in its sights). Abroad, Obama is ready to deploy military might in dubious causes defined by the country's hawkish defense establishment.
The implication for progressives? Let Barack Obama know in no unspoken terms that if he wants to revel in the White House for a full eight years he has to garb himself in that old liberal persona.