Posted: May 2, 2011
here is a mysterious quality to President Barack Obama. His family background—the Kenyan bigamist father, the time in an Indonesian household—is unusual for an American. His almost entirely non-commercial, and sometimes anti-commercial, career provides few points of contact with the experience of most Americans. Obama's political strategy turned the public's unfamiliarity with him and his aloofness toward it into glamour. His slogans were vague even by the standards of political campaigns. In the prologue to his second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), he famously remarked that he served as a blank screen on which others of different political views could project their hopes.
But there is more to it than that. Even though Obama has written two books about himself—partlybecause he has—our knowledge of chapters of his life remains fragmentary. Two new books seek to solve the mystery of Obama, and both note how frequently he has rewritten his past in the course of relating it.
In Radical-in-Chief, Stanley Kurtz makes the arresting and persuasive observation that "contemporary community organizing is largely a socialist enterprise," and that it is deceptive about that fact. It is not too much to say that Obama has been trained in the simultaneous advancement and concealment of leftism. And the press has not made him strain himself.
Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, draws an example from a Time magazine interview with Obama in 2008. Asked about his reference in Dreams from My Father (1995) to having attended "socialist conferences" while at Columbia, Obama replied that he also read Hayek and Friedman but rejected the "dogma" and "excesses" of both sides. As Kurtz shows in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail, to say that Obama "browsed" in leftism, as Time concluded, is an understatement. His associates, friends, and intellectual influences were much more left-wing—more socialist—than he has let on. The evidence that he rejected any of their core beliefs as "dogma" during his youth and early adulthood is essentially non-existent.
The book is weaker in its last chapter, when it turns to contemporary politics and the record of the Obama Administration. Kurtz wants to make the case for continuity between the youthful and the middle-aged Obama, and the president's deception about his past makes that case seem stronger: Never having acknowledged his leftism, Obama cannot claim to have outgrown it. But it is always possible that he has gradually and quietly shed his left-wing skin, and there is of course no way for Kurtz to disprove that story.
Radical-in-Chief allows that Obama is a pragmatist and that the meaning of socialism is not what it used to be, but downplays the significance of these concessions. Political pragmatism has a way over the years of placing old goals over the horizon and out of sight, which is after all one of the reasons hardliners always warn against it. Is it so implausible in Obama's case that the mask has become the man?
Kurtz is quite right to say that tactical moderation is consistent with substantive leftism. Since the publication of his book, Kurtz has written that Obama's support for a deal that extends the Bush Administration's tax cuts shows that he is shrewder than leftists who opposed the deal, not that he is more centrist than they are. But Kurtz is himself inconsistent on this point. Referring to the passage of the Democratic health-care law in the course of defending the book's thesis, Kurtz has also written that "Obama overrode the advice of his key political advisers on that issue, so something more than liberal-Democratic business-as-usual was likely at work." If tactical moderation on taxes doesn't put Obama to Bernie Sanders's right, tactical boldness on health care can't put him to Rahm Emanuel's left.
We are also told that Obama's true views will come to the fore later in his presidency, but this is not at all clear. It seems unlikely that Obama, even if re-elected, will ever again have the lopsidedly liberal congressional majorities he enjoyed in his first two years. His liberalism has probably already crested.
To the extent Kurtz succeeds in demonstrating how easily socialists and social democrats have been folded into the Democratic party, he undercuts his own case that Obama is distinctively left-wing, and dangerous, because of his history. The auto bailout, the stimulus, the health-care law, and all the rest may make America resemble European social democracies, and bring us closer to socialism. But we needed no biography of Barack Obama to know this. Any conceivable Democratic president elected in 2008 would have favored these policies, however he had spent his college years. The vast majority of congressional Democrats backed all of them. Congressional Democrats with little exposure to the Midwest Academy, ACORN, and the other members of Kurtz's bestiary had more to do with the design of these laws than Obama did.
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The Roots of Obama's Rage, a more speculative and (perhaps therefore) readable book, by polemicist and King's College president Dinesh D'Souza, has an enlarged form of the same problem. D'Souza's theory is that Obama's core political commitment is to his late father's anti-colonialist ideology. That theory has frequently been criticized on the ground that Obama could not have been significantly influenced by a man he barely knew. This criticism is clearly mistaken, since Obama wrote an entire book about that influence. (Just read the title.) But if his program is peculiarly rooted in the Obama family psychodrama, why have Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid consistently gone along with it? It is a question that D'Souza never entertains.
Nor does he ever really show that Obama has any "rage" to explain. (Even the cover image of a hostile Obama looks less enraged than irritated—perhaps with the reader for picking up the book.) D'Souza refers to Obama's "suppressed fury." Petulant, vain, deceptive, and cold he may be, but if he has any fury its suppression is more striking than its expression.
This is not the only false note in the book. "So far, conservative opposition to Obama has been shrill," D'Souza writes. As he develops his thesis he proceeds to argue that Obama views the Lockerbie bomber as a hero of the fight against American imperialism, would prefer that we lose in Afghanistan, wants American power to be reduced, sees America as a rogue state (but isn't anti-American!), has deliberately chosen the least effective means of stopping Iran's nuclear program, and cares more about protecting terrorists from America than vice-versa. For him to characterize the run of conservatives for their strident tone seems, given these features of his book, unfair.
D'Souza continually insists that he has found the key to understanding Obama. Anti-colonialism "is the moral and intellectual foundation of his ideology," and his policies are "incomprehensible without this intellectual landscape." As an explanatory model, the theory is "powerful."
Perhaps too powerful: It seems to explain everything. But the protean character of "anti-colonialism" does all the work. D'Souza never spells out its content. So the health-care plan and cap-and-trade are presented as "anti-colonialist," rather than socialist, because they involve the government seizing power from rich white corporate types rather than directly nationalizing industry. But of course this was also true of the Clinton Administration's health-care plan, and nobody attributed its design to Kenyan history.
Again and again the author attributes Obama's positions to anti-colonialism when less exotic explanations would be given for any other politician who took the same positions. D'Souza claims that whereas Al Gore wants the whole world to accept lower living standards to prevent global warming, Obama is content to let the West, and especially the United States, make sacrifices while merely calling for others to act. But Gore, too, favors unilateral action combined with exhortation. Obama's position is no more anti-Western than Gore's.
Obama's policy toward Iran's nuclear program is identical to that of George W. Bush, at least in his second term. Why should we assume that Obama's motives are more sinister than Bush's? D'Souza sees Obama's habit of presenting his own positions as moderate in comparison to two hypothetical extremes as an example of his "lactification," by which he means his attempt to distance himself from the "angry black man" stereotype. But since it is a standard rhetorical trick often used by each of Obama's immediate predecessors as president, why not see it as what it obviously is: an attempt to make the positions seem reasonable?
On two occasions in this short book, D'Souza notes that the president forced some banks to accept bailout funds and refused to let banks repay the funds when they considered themselves ready. It is of course within the realm of possibility that Obama wanted to use the funds as an excuse for extensive federal control of the banking industry, and wanted this control in order to avenge his father's shade. But it is also possible that the administration believed that providing funds to sound and unsound banks alike would keep the markets from attacking beneficiaries and non-repayers. It may also have believed that without this policy barely solvent banks would be able to survive but would not be healthy enough to lend and thus aid the economic recovery. These views, discussed among banking-policy experts at the time as explanations for the administration's actions, may have been misguided. But they may also have been sincerely held. D'Souza does not consider any alternative to his anti-colonialist theory, which may be why he finds that it fits the facts so often and so well.
By the time he explains that sending more troops to Afghanistan is another clever anti-colonialist gambit, one begins to wonder whether anything could falsify the theory. He sees the auto bailout as evidence that Obama views the autoworkers' unions as victims of oppression by neo-colonialist CEOs. If Obama had let the companies sink, though, couldn't the anti-colonialist theory have explained it away as his indifference to a symbol of American might?
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Perhaps the real solution to the mystery of Obama is that there is no mystery at all. Obama's political views are consequential because he is the president, but they show little sign of being especially interesting aside from that. Genus liberal, species academic, character type pragmatic: That classification seems adequate. His heart belongs to the Left, and his heart of hearts to Barack Obama.
His conventionality is a good thing for conservatism. One reason conservatism's political fortunes rebounded so quickly after the 2008 election is that liberalism made its critique of President Bush too personal—a matter of his own alleged stupidity and closed-mindedness rather than of the conservative creed. If Americans reach the verdict that President Obama is a failure, it would be better for conservatism if they attributed that failure to the liberalism he shares with most of his party rather than to his personal quirks. The evidence suggests, too, that this attribution would be just.