Inside Obama's Brain

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Barack Obama a faux populist? Is he a player of politics-as-usual masquerading as an agent of change? Is he a do-nothing centrist frittering away the hopes of millions? Is he just a flashy front man for the military-industrial complex?

A year ago, these questions would have seemed absurd. A year ago, Obama, coming off a startlingly effective campaign, had just received more votes (in raw numbers if not total percentage of votes cast) than any other presidential candidate in history. But a year is, as they say, a very, very long time in politics. Today, as President Obama accepts his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he is the object of intense, and frequently personal, attack by conservatives and, increasingly, is lambasted as a sell-out by many of the same left-bloggers who helped propel the Obama-for-President movement center-stage in 2007-8.

The Nobel Prize committee clearly decided that, despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Obama's achievement in convincing a majority of Americans to part with the go-it-alone, conflict-is-good-for-business policies and ethos of the Bush/Cheney years, as well as his long-term ambitions to reduce the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles, to tackle climate change, to craft a political message that made millions of people feel included in the political process for the first time in their lives, and to put in place a large scale anti-poverty agenda cumulatively merited a Peace Prize.

It is a decision that will likely be debated for years to come. Can a president presiding over a war -- no matter how necessary the fight may be, no matter how many months of deliberations preceded the decision to increase America's on the ground presence -- simultaneously be a Nobel peace laureate? Should sitting leaders be eligible for the prize, or might it make more sense to exclude them from consideration until after their term in office is complete and their legacy more fully rounded? Frankly, if I had my druthers, I'd rewrite the rules of the nominating process to exclude those in leadership positions from having their names put forward.

That said, Obama's peace prize is, in reality, serving as a focal point for a host of other, broader critiques. If the president weren't in Oslo today, he'd still be dealing with this chorus of criticism.

In a way, President Obama these days seems damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, a voice of moderation in a corrosively shrill, partisan political milieu. He is either a purveyor of big government or a ditherer who won't spend enough to truly stimulate the economy. He is either a week-kneed, radical internationalist intent on traveling the globe to apologize for past American misdeeds; or he is a war-mongering imperialist gleefully increasing the country's military boot-prints in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is either a socialist determined to bring down the American way of life through takeovers of failing car companies and other impertinent interventions in the market; or he is a vassal of high-finance unwilling to help the little man. And, as the debates around climate change unfold in Copenhagen this week, he is either a mad, green fundamentalist or a corporate lackey smilingly administering band-aids to a crisis that mandates radical surgery.

To me, very little of this hyperbolic rhetoric, on either the left or the right, has substance. Yes, the country is enraged by the degree of economic hurt we're living through; and, yes, the times are so laced with uncertainty, both domestically and in the international arena, that any political leader would have to traverse minefields on a daily basis. But none of that means that Obama has abandoned, or betrayed, his fundamental political values. And, at least in part, that's because his values, and his political goals, while strong and ambitious, aren't precisely what many assumed they were back when he was a candidate rather than a leader.

In researching and writing my book, Inside Obama's Brain, which is being released today by Penguin, I talked to well over one hundred people who know, and have worked with, Barack Obama over the years. I concluded that Obama was never quite the pure, even naïve, idealist that both his supporters and his detractors often assumed him to be back in 2008. To the contrary: the forty fourth president, while deeply empathetic and while genuinely committed to a grassroots-empowerment vision, has always been a strange blend of pragmatism and idealism; he's always soared high rhetorically, thought big-picture in terms of his goals, but at the same time has generally looked to pragmatic policy approaches when tackling specific problems. His soul, his heart, is utopian; but his brain is actually rather policy wonkish.

Obama's rhetoric about "change" is sincere; he wants to leave a large institutional legacy and he is passionate about bringing the voices of the voiceless into the halls of power. But, at the same time, he is by no stretch of the imagination a revolutionary; he has never wanted to tear down, or allow to collapse under its own weight, the existing political and economic system -- hence his willingness to spend a king's ransom to keep the banking system from falling into the abyss during his first months in office.

Moreover, like all skilled politicians, Obama know that compromise is often the grease that keeps the machine running. He knows, said his state senate colleague and poker-night buddy Denny Jacobs, "when to accept half the hog."

To my mind that very blend of pragmatism and idealism is one of the character traits that make him so compelling. We might not all like all aspects of the health care reform that's shaping up, but when the history books are written, Obama will likely go down as the president who managed to achieve what a host of others had failed to do: bring tens of millions of uninsured Americans under a health care umbrella. We might not like all the compromises around climate change policy, but, again, he is the first president not only to prioritize the problem, but also to look for institutional solutions to it. We might not like all of his military decisions, but he's going to ultimately negotiate some very important nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia.

Slowly, but measurably, the Obama administration is changing some of the fundamental ways we work as a society and as a great power. And that is, in large measure, because it is keeping a steady hand on the levers of governance instead of tacking with whatever popular winds happening to be blowing each new day.

Many of Obama's advisers and friends told me that during the election campaign Obama almost never got upset, or panicked, by day-to-day shifts in momentum, by the ups and downs of opinion polls. When seasoned commentators said he was a flash in the pan, or couldn't close the deal during the primary fight against Hillary Clinton, or would never be able to connect with white working class voters, Obama quietly demurred. He hued carefully to his course and step by step let the game plan play out.

Four years earlier, running for the U.S. Senate, he had done the same thing. At a fund-raiser, one of his Harvard Law School tutors, an African American named David Wilkins, took Obama aside and quietly asked him whether, in all honesty, he believed Illinois voters would elect a liberal African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama as their Senator. Obama said he did, talked through a detailed campaign strategy with Wilkins, and left his tutor convinced that he did, indeed, have a viable shot at winning. A few months later, he was on his way to D.C.

It's that sense of confidence, that ability to read the moment's needs and to seize his opportunities that makes Obama a stand-out political figure. Slowly but surely, he is re-charting the course of the American ship of state. And in doing so, he is writing the political story of our time.