He gives the appearance of a strikingly laid-back victor, this presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
On the day before the night he made history, Barack Obama shot hoops at the Back Bay Club in Chicago, and called the odd superdelegate or two. Then he and his wife, Michelle, kissed their daughters goodnight and, with a half dozen of their best friends, rode to Midway Airport to catch a flight to St. Paul to claim his prize. He sat on the plane, legs crossed, chuckling, chatting, giving little hint of what roiled within.
Mr. Obama has written of his “spooky good fortune” in politics, and vaulting ambition and self-possession define his rise.
He turned down a prestigious federal appellate court clerkship while at Harvard to work as a community organizer. He wrote an autobiography at the age of 33, and another 11 years later. He brushed aside a liberal mentor who stood in his way in Illinois. After just two years in the United States Senate, he announced that he would run for the presidency and then upended a Democratic Party powerhouse.
On the cusp of becoming the first African-American to capture a major party nomination, Mr. Obama remains a protean political figure, inspiring devotion in supporters who see him as a transformative leader even as he remains inscrutable to critics.
‘Rorschach test’ for voters
He has the gift of making people see themselves in him and offers an enigmatic smile when asked about his multiracial appeal.
“I am like a Rorschach test,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”
He is a liberal who favors regulating Wall Street and stanching housing foreclosures, negotiating with foreign enemies and disengaging from the war in Iraq. He speaks eloquently about America’s divisions of race and class, and says the old rhetoric of racial grievance has exhausted itself.
But his insistence that he can bridge the nation’s ideological chasms without resort to partisan warfare leaves some with the nagging sense that he makes it sound too easy, and that his full measure as a politician has yet to be taken.
He has stumbled and fumbled more than once. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton confounded him, pushing him back on his heels, his irritation too apparent. He falls in love with his words and perhaps his celebrity, acknowledging after Texas that he had become too dependent on arena politics and too aloof in smaller settings.
Slideshow: Historic night He is a deliberative fellow in a manic game. When his now-retired pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., offered incendiary views on race and politics, Mr. Obama was slow to recognize how quickly Mr. Wright’s words inflamed voters’ doubts about him.
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Michelle Obama, who is also a Harvard-trained lawyer and whose fires often burn hotter than those of her husband, pointedly advises Mr. Obama to forswear the cerebral and embrace the visceral. As Republicans attack him as unknown and untested, Mr. Obama could recall her advice in the months to come.
He was raised literally and metaphorically offshore, in Indonesia by his white mother and in Hawaii by his white grandparents. He is very much an American but tends to view the incongruities of politics with the distancing eye of an outsider.
A life examined
One of the curiosities about Mr. Obama is his professed lack of interest in the writers who pore over that life, trying to deconstruct his fractured family and geography. He claims not to read profiles that pile high in his plane.
“It just encourages the narcissism that is already a congenital defect for a politician,” he says. “I find these essays more revealing about the author than about me.”
The same might be said of Mr. Obama’s autobiography, which is less a straightforward chronicle than a carefully framed coming-of-age narrative. He describes himself as a young man adrift, although few friends recall thinking him so lost. And he just might have overstated his youthful experimentation with marijuana.
(Last November, an Iowa voter asked if he, unlike Bill Clinton, had inhaled. Mr. Obama looked puzzled. “I never understood that line,” he said. “The point was to inhale.”)
He carries a reputation as a Natural, and insists on calm. He did not interview each prospective campaign aide, but he laid down a rule: No drama kings or queens welcome. He confides in only a handful of advisers, particularly David Axelrod, the campaign guru with the appreciation for Chicago-style politics, and rarely displays public agitation about the measuring stick of his profession, electoral wins and losses. Told in February that he had won the caucuses in Maine, an overwhelmingly white state that he had expected to lose, he nodded, mumbled “That’s great,” and turned back to a phone call.
A man of moderate tastes
He jokes with his Secret Service agents and carries his own bags off planes and buses. (In this fishbowl world, a candidate knows he is being studied; carrying your own bags can be good manners, good politics, or both.) He jogs to the stage with the cocky ease of a jock.
He favors moderate tastes, preferring organic tea to a tumbler of gin, salmon to steak, a fruit plate to fries. He jokes about tossing back a beer, but his tippling amounts to a swig or two, most often to try to prove to television cameras that he is a “regular guy.”
But his greenness as a candidate also shows. His debate performances tend toward the erratic, authoritative one moment, defensive and diffident the next. He waxes incandescent at rallies, but in the 18-hour days leading up to primaries, he can sound aloof and querulous before smaller audiences. Condescension can creep in. He suggested, for example, that his youthful travels to Asia and Europe had left him more knowledgeable than Mrs. Clinton or Mr. McCain about foreign affairs.
“When I speak about having lived in Indonesia, having family that is impoverished in Africa, knowing the leaders is not important,” he told a crowd. “What I know is the people.”
At a fund-raiser in San Francisco, he speculated unhelpfully about the psychic hold that guns and religion had on the white working class.
His ache for time lost with his daughters feels palpable. On his plane recently, he described the nightly calls home. Malia, 9, is loquacious, rattling off every detail of her day. Six-year-old Sasha, whom he has nicknamed Cool Breeze, goes monosyllabic.
How was your day? “Fiiiine,” Mr. Obama mimics her uninterested voice.
But the campaign has allowed this ambitious man just 10 days home last year.
So the contradictions pile up. He is a watcher and a wanderer who found a home in Chicago where he fashioned his adult identity, not least as a black man. He is an idealist who pursues the national spotlight with the intensity of a bloodhound and finds the top prize almost within grasp. Yet he holds tight to the belief that he can draw a curtain of normalcy about his family.
For months, he tried to keep his old e-mail address and cellphone number until friends convinced him he was nuts. “We were like, ‘Barack! Give it up!’ ” said Cassandra Q. Butts, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress and a former Harvard classmate. “He asks: ‘Why don’t you call?’
“I tell him, ‘Hey, Barack, you’ve got a few things going on, right?’ ”
Making his way
Friends talk of his sixth sense for career timing as if there were a Barack-the-immaculate-pol quality to his rise. But he is no accidental political tourist.
He studies his chosen world like a Talmudist, charting trends and noting which rivals are strong and which weak. His politics are liberal but his instincts are accommodationist; he cultivates older, powerful mentors, Democratic and Republican, and he made his peace with the Chicago Democratic machine.
“You don’t go from being a community organizer to running for president in 15 years unless you have a lot of ambition,” said Paula Wolff, a Chicago Republican and a mentor. “He likes to listen carefully, and naturally you assume that’s very smart of him.”
If there is an art to seeking advice, Mr. Obama holds a master’s degree. He favors a hand on the shoulder, a whisper in the ear. In 1996, when he pondered a race for the Illinois Legislature, Jean Rudd, a mentor in the foundation world, took him to lunch with a prominent lobbyist. The appetizers had no sooner arrived than the lobbyist framed the question: Why would a Harvard-educated lawyer want to step into a hellhole like that? You’ll leave your wife behind, you’ll be in the minority party, you’ll be treated like dirt. Mr. Obama chuckled and asked questions. The lobbyist later became an adviser.
Abner J. Mikva, the former judge, asked Mr. Obama, fresh out of Harvard, to apply as his clerk. Mr. Obama declined, preferring to labor as a community organizer. But, characteristically, he later befriended the older man.
The judge recognized his talents, but oh that speaking style. Too many ers and uhs, too Harvard and not enough South Side. Mr. Obama did not argue the point; he began paying attention in church.
“He listened to patterns of speech, how to take people up the ladders,” recalls Mr. Mikva, now 81. “It’s almost a Baptist tradition to make someone faint, and, by God, he’s doing it now.”
When he gained election to the Springfield statehouse, Mr. Obama taught himself poker; politics happened around card tables. Then he took up golf. He hit one shank after another. “He was no Tiger Woods,” said State Senator Terry Link, an older white Democrat. Eventually Mr. Obama learned to drive and putt — and found a new place to conduct politics.
All of which sounds disarming, but there is a glint of steel. With his eyes on the State Senate in 1996, Mr. Obama told a former mentor that he would not stand down and let her reclaim her seat. And he used technicalities to bump rivals off the ballot until he ran unopposed. His operatives slapped down attempts to rerun primaries in Michigan and Florida; a recent party compromise on counting delegates from those states worked to his advantage.
An old Chicago hand notes that Mr. Obama seems to have read his Niccolò Machiavelli.
An 11-year path
Once, months ago, Mr. Obama preferred novels, meaty chews by John le Carré, E. L. Doctorow and Philip Roth that transported him far from the cacophonous here and now.
“Fiction kind of took me out of myself and what we were doing every day,” he noted as he sat in his campaign plane, waiting to fly to another rally at a far-too-early hour.
He motions at the platoons of Secret Service agents and staff members taking their seats. “I’m lucky if I get through a chapter of anything,” he says. “I have come to realize the secret to sleeping on the road is to get very, very, tired.”
He returns to Chicago and his Hyde Park home as a celebrity. Neighbors cross the street to shake his hand and point from afar. Mr. Obama rolls his eyes.
“Look, I don’t want to sound too noble: The first time you’re on the cover of Time magazine and the crowds are cheering, that’s not bad, right?” he says on the airplane. “But one thing I’ve learned about myself is that the surface glitter, the vanity element of this campaign, becomes less satisfying as I go along.”
That sounds too easy. He does not evince Bill Clinton’s animal need to work a rope line until every sweaty hand is shaken. But he has taken just 11 years to run the course from state senator to the first black presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, and holds thousands spellbound, and that suggests an ambition that runs swift and powerful. As a banker who plays basketball with Mr. Obama notes, he starts off quietly but he is known for talking a little smack if his shots are falling in.
It is not easy to sort out. The Obamas’ friends are black and white, upper-middle class to wealthy, University of Chicago law professors and historians and lawyers and foundation types. When the news media calls, they put the shovel only so deep in the ground of revelation.
‘It’s like I’m just the excuse’
You return to that question again: You really don’t read profiles of yourself?
Mr. Obama was sitting on his campaign plane a few months ago as it began the rumble down yet another runway to yet another campaign stop. He shakes his head but it sounds hard to believe; this introspective candidate ignores all those words? A reporter reads aloud from the novelist Darryl Pinckney’s essay in The New York Review of Books. Mr. Obama, the novelist writes, “comes across as someone who stored away for future consideration practically everything that was ever said to him, and who had a talent for watchfulness, part of the extraordinary armor he developed at an early age.”
Mr. Obama nods. That’s intriguing. But he prefers his own riff, which not incidentally trains the eye not on him but on his crowds. “I love when I’m shaking hands on a rope line and”— he mimes the motion, hand over hand — “I see little old white ladies and big burly black guys and Latino girls and all their hands are entwining. They’re feeding on each other as much as on me."
He shrugs; it’s that distancing eye of the author.
“It’s like I’m just the excuse.”
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times