“I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it.”

John Dean, speaking of Richard Nixon

Who IS Obama?

There appear to be at least four versions of Mr. Obama, each of which is competing for our collective sense of reality, for the dominant media narrative, possibly for Obama’s soul, and – ultimately – for the verdict of history.

We have to cut our new president a little slack here, of course. It is not remarkable when any new president loses ground in the polls. The mere transition from the poetry of the campaign to the prose of governance[1] is enough to erode popular support. Of course, that didn’t happen with Eisenhower, but then he never sold himself as a poet in the first place.

Certainly, no president is likely to hold an adulatory electorate in thrall while facing a global financial crisis, a major and seemingly intractable recession, new terrorist probings of our homeland, an environmental calamity perilously close to our shores and a floundering war against the Taliban in Afghanistan – the former state sponsors of the 911 atttacks, now resurgent.

The truly great presidents can call on a reservoir of trust, an earned respect for general competence and real-world savvy.

It is painfully clear that something entirely different is at work here. In some ways, this is the strangest president in living memory. Moreover, the enigma surrounding Mr. Obama’s persona only increases, as do the essential doubts about his deeper character.

Who is this man in the White House, really? We can fill the blanks with our personal impressions, but a difficult thing needs to be acknowledged:

The trust question has started to gnaw at the electorate. That gnawing sound in the background is the Presidential Virus.

The Post Messiah Obama

As we acknowledge the collapse of the notion that we have elected the messiah, four “versions” of this president remain in play.


Obama, as the decent liberal-minded young man, with some moderate instincts: This is the character that fate has surrounded – it appears – with naive, left-minded advisors, who currently have his ear.


Obama, as the ambitious, narcissistic chameleon, enthralled with the grandiose gesture: This character is surrounded by sycophantic advisors, a man addicted to praise and greatly irritated when the mirror of Narcissus reveals something unpleasant about himself or his agenda.


Obama, as the closet arch-leftist (as distinguished from a humanitarian liberal, like, say, Hubert Humphrey): This is a man whose political world-view was formed by unreconstructed 60’s radicals and hip, anti-Semitic blacks. This is Obama as the dangerous political genius whose ideological commitment may lead him to be content with a consequential first term & damn the majority of voters who “just don’t get it.” This is the picture of someone bright and manipulative enough to feint to the center when necessary to “get things done”, then reverts to form.


Obama, as the political lightweight: This is the minor, first term Illinois senator whose ascent to power was a surprise even to him, whose un-preparedness for the supreme national executive position was revealed by lengthy and tortured decision times, by a growing gap between glib rhetoric and results. This is a leader who – when pressed by events and critics – often becomes prickly, pedantic and professorial.

Am I really being unfair here? There is still no definitive answer to the “Who is this man?” question. Because of that lacunae, contrasting, say, with the larger-than-life characters of FDR and Reagan, Mr. Obama’s image remains in flux…even (dare we acknowledge it?) turmoil. More troubling to his early supporters and eager coattailers, the trend is relentlessly down. And even more troubling, the trend is driven by growing disillusionment and increasing distrust.

In conversations with liberal friends, I’ve often advanced the first view of Obama (as the decent idealist, needing more practical advisors), in order to point out that Mr. Obama’s presidency now hinges on the benign effects of an emerging strong counter-force. After all, Bill Clinton’s second term actually benefited from “triangulation” (accommodation with the center), made necessary after the GOP took the congress.

But in my most realistic moments, the third version (Obama as a closet arch-leftist) has proved almost perfectly predictive. Moreover, in those moments of crisis that require decisive presidential leadership, the Obama 4.0 (out-of-depth lightweight) is spot on. Whenever this president is placed on the defensive, especially in his immediate reaction to political challenges, Obama 2.0 (the grandiose narcissist) emerges. Could it be that the real Obama is a shifting amalgam of all four?

But the important pending question is this: Just how much on-the-job growth can we reasonably expect of this president? Jimmie Carter clung to his received wisdom with a stubborn righteousness bordering on folly. JFK was chagrined by his mistakes, learned from them and regained his balance. Harry Truman, having been ill prepared by FDR, was thrust into a series of grave crises, but drew on his tough prairie character, his keen instincts for negotiations, a humble awe for the magnitude of the office he had not sought, and became the tough, indefatigable student who grew stronger and smarter with each challenge.

From my distance, I can see nothing of these leaders in our new president. Our best hope lies in the emergence of Obama 5.0 or 6.0:


Obama as the humble, adaptable patriot: This is a conscientious leader, not obsessed with his image, willing to live with his mistakes, eager to learn from them, actually and actively seeking out and listening to and actively considering advice outside his ideological and social circle.


Obama as the neo-populist chameleon, pledged to build the successful American nation that most voters want on the terms that most voters expect: This is a political survivor with a deep respect for the populist currents now afoot, willing to break with the elites in both parties as necessary to restore American as a preeminent world economic and military power.

To state the problem and its solutions is to repeat the obvious: Because this president’s surface image is tightly managed, nothing authentic has leaked out that would suggest that there is any serious internal policy debate, let alone presidential soul searching, nothing in other words, that offers any hope in a significant change of direction.

And to return to my earlier, “cancer on the presidency” theme, the ongoing collapse of popular trust may be so irreversible that Mr. Obama will feel he has trapped himself in a publicity construct and policy course of his own making. To change course (from his perspective, at least) would only make matters worse…for his image.

To put the problem starkly, the image is the thing: Narcissus of Thespiae lived in and for his own pool-reflected image, unable to see reality. In the Greek myth, Narcissus never recovered.

Groundhog Season

If this POTUS is to reconnect with reality and regain the capacity of balanced and popular leadership, the first sign will be manifest by what sort of Obama emerges during the so called “rogue duck” congress window, the time after the current democratic majority is routed on November 2 and the swearing-in of the next, more conservative congress in January 3, 2011. If the old Mr. Obama pops out of the hole to encourage and sign more unpopular “last chance” legislation during that period, that act alone will tellus that Narcissus has not recovered and probably will not recover.

But if Mr. Obama discourages and refuses to sign any “rogue duck” legislation, there will be real hope for the emergence of Obama 5.0 or 6.0 during the fateful last two years of his term in office.

Stay tuned.


The author is a California attorney who served as the alameda county Public defender 1989-1999 but gave up his ‘life of crime” for full time writing.

His profile is posted at

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[1] The observation is attributed to the senior Cuomo, Mario.

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