With his Syria policy careening from inaction to the threat of force to a request for congressional approval to a diplomatic bailout from Russia, the long-vexing puzzle of what makes Barack Obama tick has again come to the fore.
About most presidents, it’s possible to put together a sentence or two that plausibly describes their view of the world and where they sought to take the country. Reagan wanted to rebuild American strength and unleash economic growth at home. The Cold War over, George H. W. Bush, himself no ideologue, was pragmatically looking to shape a “new world order.” Bill Clinton was a “New Democrat” who sought a third way between the old-school liberalism of a Ted Kennedy and the surge of ideological conservatism that nearly engulfed him. George W. Bush found his purpose after 9/11, which was to wage a “global war on terror.”
They were, none of them, enigmatic. They openly advertised who they were, and you had the sense that there wasn’t much swimming in the depths that would come as a huge surprise to those looking at the surface.
One can’t really say this of Barack Obama. He rode his personal charisma to the top office of the land in something like record time. There was no long-established reputation, as there certainly would be with, say, Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie in 2016. He was a historic figure, the first black man to be president. That was a concise and not entirely unsatisfactory answer to the question “Who is he?”—though of course it offered no guide to his principles or plans.
He was also iconic. That famous poster of him speaks volumes. One does not interrogate an icon. Neither of Obama’s opponents in 2008, Hil-lary Clinton or John McCain, could figure out how to solve the problem of demanding answers from him.
The 2008 Obama campaign capitalized on all these elements by having the candidate present himself as a figure transcending partisan politics. This was in one sense preposterous, as the president of the United States is unavoidably head of state, chief of government, and leader of a political party. But in another sense it was a masterstroke, allowing people to see in him what they wanted to see. This united his party, attracted others, and gave his opponents very little to work with. Republicans could assert that he was some kind of secret socialist, but the paucity of evidence made those who asserted it look cranky.
Missing from the Obama persona of 2008, then, was a credo: a concise summary of his beliefs and intentions. Nor did he move to fill that gap in office—or during his reelection campaign. He has given myriad speeches, some of them very thoughtful, yet none fundamentally illuminating in this way.
His second Inaugural Address was illustrative. He presented an account of what “we, the people” of America have long believed and still believe about our country. Characteristically, its substance was a vague progressivism couched in terms of self-evident commonsense. Yet the net effect was to tell us little about Obama himself. What difference did or would he, Obama, make to this sea of “we”? He didn’t really say. George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address had no shortage of the first-person plural: “We are led, by events and commonsense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Notwithstanding the “we,” this was clearly Bush’s own credo, clearly on display in a way that Obama’s never is.
While Obama eschews a direct expression of what he believes, he manages to do so without leaving an impression that there’s no “there” there. It’s not that he is lacking in conviction. It’s that he chooses not to voice the convictions he has. The suit isn’t empty. There’s a man inside it.
Perhaps this should remind us that the purpose of the suit is to cover the man, and to do so in a formal way. Obama wears his presidency. His reticence about what he believes suggests a measure of distance between Obama the president and Obama as observer of his presidency. Obama the president tells us only what he thinks we need to know. And Obama the observer keeps his views to -himself. “President Obama” is a role that Obama knows he is playing. But that role gives us insight into the convictions of Barack Obama only -indirectly. It’s a matter