Fascinating piece in The New York Times about the challenge Barack Obama faces, not only, externally, to his ascendency, but also internally, from himself.
In the way Mr. Obama has trained himself for competition, he can sometimes seem as much athlete as politician. Even before he entered public life, he began honing not only his political skills, but also his mental and emotional ones. He developed a self-discipline so complete, friends and aides say, that he has established dominion over not only what he does but also how he feels. He does not easily exult, despair or anger: to do so would be an indulgence, a distraction from his goals. Instead, they say, he separates himself from the moment and assesses.
“He doesn’t inhale,” said David Axelrod, his chief strategist.
But with Barack Hussein Obama officially becoming the Democratic presidential nominee on Wednesday night, some of the same qualities that have brought him just one election away from the White House — his virtuosity, his seriousness, his ability to inspire, his seeming immunity from the strains that afflict others — may be among his biggest obstacles to getting there.
The piece goes at some length to describe the mystery of Obama’s feelings and how he handles them.
If there is one quality that those closest to Mr. Obama marvel at, it is his emotional control. This is partly a matter of temperament, they say, partly an effort by Mr. Obama to step away from his own feelings so he can make dispassionate judgments. “He doesn’t allow himself the luxury of any distraction,” said Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser. “He is able to use his disciplined mind to not get caught up in the emotional swirl.”
By way of explaining him, friends say it’s not that he “does not experience emotion.”
But he detaches and observes, revealing more in his books than he does in the moment. “He has the qualities of a writer,” Mr. Axelrod said. “I get the sense that he’s participating in these things but also watching them.”
That quality—to closely observe his environment, and to self-reflect—opens up an interesting, now-famous detail about his campaign.
As a campaigner, Mr. Obama had to learn to sometimes let simple emotion rule. When Mr. Axelrod first devised “Yes We Can” as a slogan during Mr. Obama’s Senate campaign, the candidate resisted: it was a little corny for his taste. “That’s where the high-minded and big-thinking Barack came in,” said Peter Giangreco, a consultant to the Obama campaign. “His initial instincts were off from where regular people’s were.”
I haven’t really been interested in Barack Obama as a person so far, but am becoming more and more so as we get closer to the election.
As a Black male of about the same age as he, I find myself watching him, thinking about his life, wondering what I’d be doing in his place, and guessing what his thoughts might be about everything going on about him. Like, it occurred to me, as he greeted Joe Biden’s family last night, that that may have been the most white women a Black man has ever kissed, as part of a public spectacle, in U.S. history.
“He doesn’t inhale,” says his chief strategist. This manner, of being very in control of one’s emotions, is familiar to me, personally, but its also an archetype that one sees a lot in African-American narrative fiction. As I was reading the piece, I kept thinking about the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, who, in the book, gives off very little information about his thoughts, though they are a raging hurricane inside of him.
I also find myself thinking of the current call for Obama to more aggressively attack McCain. Racially, this has always been a tricky piece to play. (It was even more so during the run-off with Clinton.) White people have bred what, at this point, almost looks like an instinctual aversion to Black aggression, or even to what they perceive as the same; e.g., the strident tone of Black preachers, whether they be Sharpton, Jackson, or Wright.
In light of this, I’m increasingly interested in what kinds of perspectives Obama possesses, as a result of having been raised by a white woman. Obviously, I don’t mean what he says about “our union,” or even his decision to not discuss race. I mean his own deep thoughts, the stuff he won’t even say to his wife, Michelle.
Of course, as he finalizes what he calls the “yeoman-like task of making the case for my presidency”—the speech he will give tonight, accepting his nomination by acclamation, and on which, pundits argue, hangs his very chances for the office—the one thing, I’m sure, that Barack Obama will not mention are his frankest thoughts about the system of white supremacy. Meaning that, like many of his truest emotions, we may never know how he feels.