The Magazine

The Trouble with Obama

He only seemed to be all things to all people.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Ronald Reagan's father was alcoholic, and often embarrassed his family. Bill Clinton's father died before he was born, his stepfather was violent, and his working mother (much like Obama's) was sometimes away. Theodore Roosevelt struggled with asthma, and nearly went mad when his beloved young wife suddenly died in her twenties. Franklin Roosevelt had a nerve-wracking marriage, and was crippled by polio. John Kennedy lost a brother, a brother-in-law, and his favorite sister before he (and they) had reached 30; saw a retarded sister institutionalized after a long fight by his family to raise her as normal; was wracked with pain and expected to die in his forties (he did), and had last rites performed four times before he was murdered. It is true that he and the elder George Bush were chauffeured to private school in the depths of the Depression, but both belonged to a war generation, volunteered for the service (Bush in his teens), nearly perished in combat, and saw many friends die. Others faced many professional setbacks: Ronald Reagan's Hollywood career flickered out in his 40s, and he had to start over in midlife, as far less than a star. George H.W. Bush lost a Senate race to Lloyd Bentsen and the nomination to Reagan 10 years after that; Bill Clinton was almost destroyed by his reelection loss after one term as governor; George W. Bush was a failure until he reached 40. Obama was not born a Bush or a Kennedy, and he was denied the normative two-parent idyll, but his adult years have been free of large setbacks and losses. And his political life has been charmed.

Obama entered politics in 1996 as a state senator, and 12 years later was president, after a rise so nearly free of struggle (he lost a congressional primary) that it appeared to be greased by the gods. He wanted to run for the state legislature, and the incumbent retired. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, and his two major rivals were sidelined by scandal. (Republicans had to import a talk show host from out of state for a doomed run against him: Obama walked away with 70 percent of the vote.) Tapped to deliver the Democrats' keynote speech at their 2004 convention in Boston, Obama emerged with even more luster, and entered the Senate a star. Three years later, he was running for president, while crowds swooned, shrieked, and passed out at his rallies. He held a small, steady lead through most of the summer, but fell briefly behind for two weeks in September, when John McCain's surprise pick of Governor Sarah Palin made the ticket catch fire. Then the markets imploded, and the election fell back in his lap.

In the end, he won more states than anyone since the elder George Bush two decades earlier, vanquished two weighty figures of national stature, and broke a race bar once thought to be permanent. Before he was sworn in, he was declared a great man by most of the media, and ranked next to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He ventured forth to bring Light to the World," wrote Gerard Baker, in what seemed at the time only partly a parody. "As he grew, the Child walked in the path of righteousness," Baker informed us. "And the Elders were astonished at what they heard and said among themselves, 'Verily, who is this Child that he opens our hearts and minds to the audacity of hope?' " John Kennedy, a previous golden boy, was younger than Obama was when he was elected, and his career too had had a dazzling upward trajectory. But he had served 14 years in Congress, his first Senate win was a hard-fought upset against the odds, and as president he carried a note with "100,000" on it, for the number of popular votes by which he had beaten Richard M. Nixon, as a hedge against hubris and vanity. But past childhood, Obama had never lost anything, had few close calls, and never had to work all that hard for his victories. His hubris would be unconstrained.