David Horsey of Seattlepi.com wrote an interesting piece the other day, after spending time in Hawaii, about Hawaii's influence on the character and outlook of President Barack Obama. Some of the president's former teachers and classmates told Horsey they were surprised by the success of an Obama they had known as something of a slacker. Even his basketball skills weren't all that much, one
That set me to thinking about the many other influences and experiences that had made the man who has been our president for two years but who continues to send conflicting signals about who he is and where he wants to take us. His recent State of the Union speech, and subsequent actions, have contributed further to uncertainty.
I bought into Obama quite early. I endorsed in both a newspaper column and my 2007 memoirs his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. I spoke for him at my precinct caucus and sent a check to his campaign. I had chances to meet him during his campaign visits to Seattle but did not make use of them. The uplifting, optimistic tone and content of his speeches were similar to those of John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and other early 1960s Democratic leaders. I knew the man without meeting him, I thought.
Harvard Law School classmates told me he seemed destined then for big things. He was a leader but no backslapper and stood a bit apart. He was respected for going home to Chicago, for community service, when most of his classmates were headed to Wall Street or big-name law firms. I read an interview in which Obama said his favorite Columbia professor as an undergraduate had been Zbigniew Brzezinski. But Brzezinski told me Obama had never been his student and he had never met him. (He did meet him briefly in 2008 but, after their meeting, Obama hastened to state that he did not necessarily subscribe to Brzezinski's foreign-policy views).
I liked the fact that Obama had been raised in multicultural Hawaii and had lived for a time in Indonesia, where he was enrolled in a Muslim school — which, by the way, listed his religion as "Muslim" and his citizenship as "Indonesian." He knew something of African politics and culture because of his father. (He also appears to have a bit of an anti-British bias because of British quashing of African dissidents during the colonial era). His mother was a liberal, save-the-world Caucasian. He was raised mainly by her Kansas parents after they got to Hawaii. His grandfather told him stories of his World War II service.
Here, I thought, was a cosmopolitan man who had been exposed to many places and people, ranging from the Third World barefooted to Ivy League elitists to the politically primal-movers of Chicago. I did regret that he had not really been a part of the American black experience. But he had remedied that, in part, by marrying into an archtypical Chicago middle class black family and immersing himself in local black institutions.
Obama's nominating campaign was skillful. The Democratic party goes by rules of proportional representation. Thus, although the favored candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, won the country's big electoral states, Obama ran strongly enough to get a decent share of delegates there. He organized intensely in smaller and non-primary states, which the Clinton campaign had taken for granted, so as to sweep them one-sidedly. The result: Clinton carried the big states but Obama won the nomination.
His 2008 campaign themes, I thought, also were skillfully framed. The country had been alienated by the political and ideological polarizations of the 16 Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. Obama presented hmself as post-partisan and post-ideological. He would be a practical problem-solver. Independent voters, outnumbering now both Democrats and Republicans, went for the message bigtime and won the election for him.
He and his wife Michelle had made some rhetorical stumbles during the campaign (Obama faulting middle-American voters because "they cling to guns and religion" and Michelle saying she "had never before been proud of her country" prior to her husband's nomination). But both at the time had been speaking to groups who would identify with those notions.
There were some other warning signs during his 2008 campaign. Obama kept talking about big health-care and other expensive domestic initiatives even when mounting financial distress made such initiatives inappropriate in 2009. Not to worry, I thought. He did not want to shift promises in mid-campaign and would move to practical governance when elected. His principal advisers and appointees came from a Clinton administration which was familiar with centrist governance.
But then, in 2009, Obama did shift abruptly. He did not shift policies in light of the financial/economic crises which by then had overtaken the country. He instead shifted from his 2008 Mr. Independent problem-solver persona to a 2009 Mr. Partisan champion of proposals which would be formulated and jammed through Congress on a one-party basis.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!