We have an inventive president.
The new David Maraniss biography, Barack Obama: The Story, depicts a young "Barry" Obama struggling to forge his personal identity as a multiracial black man moving from Indonesia to Hawaii to Los Angeles to New York and finally to Chicago, where it all gelled.
Then, Obama generated another narrative about himself, embellishing the first, adding some drama, eliminating the lulls, jazzing up the characters. This, according to critics, is the narrative Obama presented in his 2004 memoir, Dreams From My Father, which he wrote when he was still serving as an Illinois state senator and was barely known nationally.
Obama acknowledged in Dreams From My Father that he took a few liberties for the sake of a good yarn, such as generating composite characters in order to make a point, without bogging down in needless details. Maraniss's effort to fill in the blanks raises questions about Obama's version of events. "Mr. Obama's youthfully constructed narrative appears to be contradicted by the people and events in his life," the New York Times wrote in an analysis of Maraniss's book. "The real story of Mr. Obama's life was less dramatic -- and more routine -- than the president made it out to be in the memoir."
Obama's shortcuts and embellishments seem sure to provide fuel for critics, like his Republican presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, who want voters to see Obama as a slippery, dissembling shape-shifter. But there are at least two more thoughtful ways to look at this.
First, Obama's effort to define himself -- including the story within the story -- is a universal experience familiar to anybody who ever read Catcher in the Rye and identified with Holden Caulfield. Ordinary kids from wholesome, intact families that stay rooted in one supportive community go through this all the time. Am I a jock? A nerd? A flirt? A suck-up? A brain? A loser?
Then there are kids from broken families who must deal with questions about their self-worth and sometimes even their physical security, in addition to all the other stresses of figuring out who they are. When Maraniss writes that Obama struggled with a "sense of being a rootless outsider," a lot of people can fairly ask, who hasn't?
This isn't something that automatically gets cleared up as soon as you earn a degree or take a job. Many adults spend years figuring out what they want, where they want to be, and whom they want to be with. This is why divorces and mid-life crises happen. Many people never settle on a fixed idea of who they are; their self-image continues to evolve as they learn, suffer and mellow.
This isn't deception or flakiness; it's life. Obama's effort to craft a coherent narrative of his own complicated biography just in time for his arrival on the national stage surely had an element of political expediency to it. But there was also something wholly unremarkable about the exercise, other than the fact that it ended up a bestseller. There's a little bit of Walter Mitty in all of us.
The second underappreciated element of Obama's effort to define himself is the epic nature of his vision. In my own book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, I explored the special traits of people who have an unusual capacity for overcoming adversity, and even benefiting from it. One common attribute of such "rebounders" is a quest for heroes. Many successful people model themselves after strivers who accomplish difficult things against the odds. And some of them imagine themselves as the protagonist in an epic narrative of their own, pushed along by forces greater than themselves. They find powerful motivation in the belief that they are playing an important role in something historic.
Some people obviously become delusional, which might explain the antics of John Edwards or Bernie Madoff or people who falsely claim to be combat veterans. But that doesn't describe Obama. The disclaimers in his 2004 book, and most of his behavior since then, show that he's clear on where the line between fact and fiction lies.
Obama's search for his own heroic narrative is consistent with the kind of unusual vision that allows capable people to turn a dream into a plan and formulate a way to go after it. If you see your own life as mundane, what's going to motivate you to try something daring or innovative? Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves as a little bigger than we really are, to become the people we want to become.
To some, Obama may seem grandiloquent. And the vision he has for his own presidency doesn't mesh with the desires of many voters, especially in terms of big-government solutions to various problems. But don't fault his personal narrative. We could actually use a lot more people with an exalted sense of purpose, all across the political spectrum. To have big ideas, you've got to have a compelling story first.
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