02/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Storyteller, A Family Builder, An "Inspirational Pragmatist"

The 44th President of the United States takes office tomorrow. But for all the excitement, people are still struggling to categorize Barack Obama. Will he be a progressive President or a centrist? Will he succeed in bringing us out of this economic crisis? Can he achieve greatness?

The future has yet to be written. But here's a 1996 Obama quote for a French book on marriage, given before he had decided on a career in politics: "I think that in a certain way, I've tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends or ideas."

That's the first key to understanding Obama's governance style, at least for me: He is a storyteller. His speeches lay out a vision of the country he sees and the country he would like to see, much as his books use his own story as a lens through which to view the world around him. Storytellers are usually observers, not participants -- and Obama is both. He refuses to participate in the usual conflicts or group associations, including Democrat/Republican or left vs. right. Commentators can continue to be frustrated or infuriated by this, or they can accept that this characteristic - call it "participant/observer" or "storyteller" - is part of his nature.

To "fabricate a family" -- interesting choice of words. "Fabrication" is a manufacturing process, a builder's activity. That means that stories, friends, memories, and ideas are the raw materials with which he hopes to manufacture a family. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I find it easier to understand Obama's selection of Rick Warren, his outreach to Republicans, the "We Are One" inaugural theme, or even his goal of getting 80 votes for his stimulus plan, in the context of this "family builder" part of his personality.

To fabricate a family with stories is to do what therapist/writers like James Hillman and Judith Herman have advocated for years: To reclaim our own biographies, to redirect our own stories in service of others. And it's not a solitary activity. It needs to be done in collaboration with others. It needs to become part of a collective healing process. It's a political strategy, too, of course, giving cover for difficult decisions. But strategy is formed in the context of personality.

There are those who disagree with me, who say that this kind of writing is over-intellection, and that Barack Obama is just another centrist politician in the Democratic mold of the last eight years. They may be right. But if so, then why have the results been so different so far for this politician? The President-Elect is clearly able to communicate in ways that others have not, to mobilize without a clear-cut ideology.

Absence of ideology is not necessarily absence of values or creed. For Obama, it seems that values are sharpened by action and creed is measured by results. He appears to be a pragmatist at heart, but one who wants to elevate "getting things done" to the level of vision and principle. Call him an "inspirational pragmatist."

Can he succeed this way? Can he tell a story that builds a sense of common purpose where there has been none? That would require such a dramatic shift from the politics of the last twenty years, such a triumph over the degrading of our discourse, that it might qualify him for greatness. Can he do it?

Greatness doesn't exist independently, either in the individual or the conditions around them. Greatness is a dialog between the individual and history. The crises that accompany the new President certainly provide opportunities to excel, just as they offer plenty of opportunities to fail. The future is unwritten, and Barack Obama has given himself a tall order. He has told us, and himself, that he will not only addresses these grave problems, but that he will tell us a new story in the process. That story will challenge, and even frustrate, many of us. But it is Barack Obama's story, and he has chosen to tell it.

And by choosing him as our 44th President, we have chosen to write that story with him. Anyone who has collaborated with someone else on a writing project knows that it can be a complicated and sometimes contentious process. But with luck and hard work the result can be a story that binds, a story that compels. A story that builds.

A story that heals.