Barack Obama's Identity

Last week, I went to see Ta-Nehisi Coates interview David Remnick on his recently released biography of Barack Obama. The conversation, which took place in the New York Public Library, was well worth the ticket price. Mr. Coates is an intelligent interlocutor who exudes intellectual curiosity, while Mr. Remnick is just an impossibly polished public speaker — the man seems to summon witty retorts at will, and his answers are bereft of verbal crutches. A transcript is now available here, and I encourage everyone to take a look (the writers among you might ask yourself how it is possible to write a reported biography in 12 months while editing The New Yorker, and I can’t say it’s something I can comprehend).

There’s one excerpt I’d like to discuss.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I wanted to start with a particular question for you in terms of identity. The book is obviously very much about Barack Obama’s identity. I wonder how much your own identity influenced how you approached the story, if at all.
David Remnick: I got mine at the kitchen table. I got mine in the community that I grew up in. It came easy to me, to some degree. Look at how much Barack Obama had to figure out. I mean, he’s born who he is, he can look in the mirror; but it must have been extraordinarily confusing to have this father who was a ghost, a myth, a collection of stories that he barely knew, and by the way, were highly unreliable.

The topic of identity is basically the theme of the whole interview — there are indeed a lot of interesting questions about how this man with an unusual background formed his identity, and how that impacted his political rise. What I can’t figure, though, are the many folks on the right who react to Barack Obama in the way that Mark Steyn did in responding to the same excerpt: “Nearly as confusing as electing a post-partisan centrist-redeemer president who turns out to be a ghost, a myth, a collection of stories that we barely knew,” Mr. Steyn writes, “and by the way, were highly unreliable.”

Mr. Steyn’s posts more and more resembles talk radio monologues, the rigor typical of written argument sacrificed for the fraught tones and nonsensical-upon-reflection insinuations of the EIB Network, so it’s almost impossible to tackle this head on, but at least part of what’s asserted is that President Obama is something other than advertised in a way more extreme than the average politician. This is a common trope on talk radio and cable news generally. The idea is that we’ve elected a radical, though much of America still doesn’t realize it, and the ones who do perceive his “true” nature keep darkly repeating, “Who is this man?”

This confuses me because whether one thinks that President Obama’s domestic agenda is a step in the right direction, as his supporters do, or that he is recklessly spending too much money while intensifying the already unhealthy relationship between big government and corporate interests, as I do, it is indisputable that we’re getting basically what he said he’d do during the campaign.

To be sure, there are broken promises, like the one about not raising taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 per year, but the most consequential initiatives of his presidency — health care, pursuing cap and trade, drawing down Iraq, ramping up Afghanistan, wanting to roll back some of the Bush tax cuts — aren’t particularly surprising for anyone paying a little bit of attention.

It’s as if Mr. Steyn somehow believes that the unanswered questions about President Obama’s personal identity are particularly consequential with regard to his agenda in the Oval Office. Victor Davis Hanson writes a lot of posts in this vein too, always an amalgam of assertions grounded only in impressions he has formed about President Obama, as opposed to his actions. Thus Mr. Davis Hanson simultaneously argues that President Obama is a foreign policy radical who sympathizes with the enemies of America, and that the Bush Administration’s foreign policy is vindicated by the striking degree that President Obama has pursued continuity with it. Put simply, there is this subset of Obama critics on the right who perceive that Barack Hussein Obama’s personal identity is complex — and from this observation they for some reason think that his political identity is equally hard to comprehend, when in fact he is in most ways an utterly conventional, establishment politician whose behavior is very easy to predict.

Right-wingers like Mr. Steyn aren’t alone in analyzing President Obama as a man whose identity is unfamiliar, curious, and worthy of exploration. In his own way, that is Mr. Remnick’s project too. But Mr. Remnick seems to understand something important — take a look at this:

DR: When he ran for Congress in 2000 he ran against the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, and somebody extremely popular on the south side; an act of impiety. He lost two to one, and it was an ugly, ugly race, in which Rush and another opponent really were putting it out on the street that this guy is inauthentic – not black enough, was the phrase; that he’s an outsider; he’s not really one of us, he doesn’t have our experience, etc, etc, etc. Which is a complete denial of the black experience in America, which is immensely diverse, whether it is people who are from the Caribbean or from Africa or from… This subject dogs him all the way; it doesn’t begin with the presidential race.
TC: Since you mention Bobby Rush: there is a great scene in your book where Rush harps on how Obama walks, his bob, as we tend to call it, and he jokes that Obama did not walk like that before he came to Chicago, and that he acquired this kind of way of walking.
DR Yes. Bobby Rush is not a young man any more; his health is not the best. He is very tall and very skinny, and he is the cock of the walk. Why? Because he is the one guy who beat Obama; and he beat him soundly. So, here he is in his congressional office: it’s very nice that Barack has won finally, and he’s mocking him, and then he gets up and he just sashays across the office. And he said, you know, back then he didn’t walk like that when he ran against me. You know, he’s accusing him, even to this day, of inauthenticity; as if we all don’t learn, as if we are born with walks and all kinds of things.

I think that is an important insight — that every person, and especially every politician, does a lot to construct his or her own identity. President Obama’s personal journey may be more unconventional that that of past presidents, and the issues that it touches upon — race, ethnicity, black advancement in America — make it an appealing area of inquiry for folks like Mr. Remnick who find these issues particularly important. But President Bush, President Clinton, and every other president before them had complex personal identities, and the people who think that President Obama’s personal history somehow make him less predictable as a politician are just underestimating the extent that every president — indeed, every person — has a complex, worldview shaping personal history if you really dig down.