Barack Obama, master synthesist


Drone wars. The killing of a “radicalized” American-born cleric without due process of law. The deportation of illegal immigrants. Daring to think he could treat with John Boehner. The hilarity of hiring former Wall Street people to run the economic recovery in 2009 when eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a worldwide depression on his hands and wouldn’t even let Andrew Mellon onto the South Lawn. I can enumerate the ways in which Barack Hussein Obama reminds me of every egomaniac who’s run for the presidency. That his much vaunted cool allows him to put Malia and Sasha to bed at night while signing off on who gets vaporized by a drone strikes me as sociopathic or psychopathic is the kind of passing judgment I’ll leave to the Robert Dallecks and Jon Meachams.

But the speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention last night ranked with his best works: a reminder that as the child of mixed race and a lover of literature he has the talent and the ego to situate himself as the person on whom the audience projects its grandest aspirations. Obama’s self-regard and his constituency’s desire for self-realization are indivisible: as he acknowledged, he wouldn’t be on that stage without their faith in him; he wouldn’t be president without the audience defining him. Aware of his role as a synthesist, he dared the audience to disagree: “That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own.” The cords that bound him and them gave the speech’s most stirring bit its pathos:

We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union. That’s who we are. That’s our birthright—the capacity to shape our own destiny

Charles Pierce, the white writer who has come closet to divining Obama’s mystery, shakes his head in wonderment:

If he has done nothing else, and he has done a great deal, Barack Obama has developed an aesthetic of cool that is his alone. It expands and extends from the way he does his job; the video prior to his appearance emphasized how he always was the calm presence in the middle of heated policy debates. It also includes the way he has carried himself in office, and the way he has carried the office itself—lightly, in its ceremonial aspects, but carefully and reverently in those parts of the job that belong most importantly to the rest of us.

He remains a graceful, cosmopolitan democrat, not unlike Thomas Jefferson, not unlike Langston Hughes, not unlike Albert Murray. His patriotism is wide and generous. It has no definite frontiers. And that’s what was born in Louisiana, in the streets and the clubs and the brothels. It came from there and it fought racism to at least a draw. It came from there and it conquered the world.

His legacy I’ll leave to the historians, but as personage he defines his historical moment as much as Bowie did his musical one.

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