Australian politics, society & culture

Waiting for Barack

The improbable president

Obama's election day cheer squad, Harlem, New York, 4 November 2008. © Ingvar Kenne

Peter Conrad

Long read6600 words
 

Two months out from the American election, the President has yet to really show himself.

I can remember the first Tuesday in November four years ago in detail, without needing to be prompted by my diary.

It was a longer day than nature intended, with five extra hours. I had an early morning flight from London to New York, and a hire-car service I use at unsocial times collected me from my house before dawn to take me to the airport. The driver was a Caribbean man, cheerful despite my sullen stupor, who inevitably asked me where I was going. “America,” I grunted. “Ah,” he replied, his face – as I saw in the rear-vision mirror – smilingly alight, “it’s his day!” I even remember that we were stopped at a traffic light in West Kensington when he said it; probably, to convey the reverence with which he uttered the pronoun, I ought to give it a biblically honorific capital letter. Yes, across the ocean in the still somnolent United States, it was Election Day.

I reached New York before noon, and soon began to suspect that the frenetic city’s mood was different: could this be the ‘Change We Can Believe In’ that the blue banners had been demanding for the past few months? The immigration officers at the airport were less surly than usual; in Manhattan, people seemed uncharacteristically subdued, as if holding their breaths. For the first time in my life I gave money to a panhandler, and ridiculously imagined that I’d made a small donation to the fund of goodwill that would help to bring about that longed-for change. In the early evening I surrendered to jetlag, and reluctantly went to bed in my apartment. I woke up a couple of hours later, startled by a shout on the Greenwich Village street corner far below my window. It took me a few seconds to realise where I was; luckily the noise repeated itself. It was a single voice, and what it said, breaking one word up into its syllables and hurling them forth in a jubilant crescendo, was “O-BA-MA!!!”

I turned on the television just in time to see the president-elect stroll, unflustered as always, into a Chicago park that contained a surging, sobbing ocean of admirers, where he made a speech in which he assured his daughters that when they got to the White House a few months later he would present them with a puppy. I then went happily back to sleep, somehow convinced that he’d made the promise to me and confident that he’d keep it.

*

Like the ownerless voice on the street corner that alerted me to his victory, Barack Obama came out of nowhere. Presidential politics is dynastic: thanks to the Kennedys, the Bushes and – who knows? – the Clintons, the office has become a kind of elected monarchy. It helps, given the quantities of cash needed to make the running, to be a tycoon, like Mitt Romney and most of the Republican candidates he defeated earlier this year. And because the presidency is an acting role, a Hollywood career is also an asset, as in Reagan’s case. Obama lacked family connections and corporate wealth; he had credentials as a writer, thanks to his superb memoir Dreams from My Father, though he was too genuinely thoughtful to be cast as the nation’s anchorman, soothing anxieties and ensuring, as Reagan did, that America ended every day feeling good about itself and arose the next morning convinced that it owned the sun.

Obama became famous, in an example of the instantaneous stardom that Americans love, by making a speech. I first heard of him when he delivered the keynote address in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It was a homily to God’s own country, a land conjured up in a poetic invocation when he recalled that his father had come from a Kenyan village where he herded goats “to study in a magical place: America”. Obama went on to cite himself – “a skinny kid with a funny name” who had been given the chance to flourish – as one of the “small miracles” that fulfil wishes for American dreamers; he ended by challenging the people to “rise up” and prophesied, in a tone that echoed the fervour of revivalist preachers, that “out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come”. If you watch the performance on YouTube, you notice that he stumbles and falters at first, and then, steadying his nerves, begins to acquire and enjoy power, which he uses to orchestrate mass emotion with his talismanic phrases. The speech was a bold self-advertisement: while loyally deferring to John Kerry, the party’s nominee that year, he was putting down a marker as a future candidate. Yet when I mentioned Obama to friends in London early in 2008, they looked blank and scoffed at my prediction – based on the aplomb with which he was sauntering through the primary elections, with pauses in gyms where he demonstrated his effortless supremacy by shooting basketballs into hoops – that he’d be the next president of the United States.

Obama was indeed, to use a recurrent word of his, “improbable”. In the early days he applied that adjective to the cross-cultural love affair of his parents, to a campaign that he also called a “quest”, and to the eclectic US. The word also summed up his contradictory origins – father from Kenya, mother from Kansas – and his disparate career: a childhood spent in Indonesia and Hawaii was followed by college in California and New York, which led to a political apprenticeship in the gritty slums of Chicago with time out for legal studies at Harvard. If it sounded strange, that was what made it authentically part of “the unlikely story that is America”. Obama’s appeal, but also his threat, lay in the way he confused categories and blurred ideologies. The secret service, when first assigned to protect him, gave him the codename ‘Renegade’. Leftist sceptics grumbled that he wasn’t black enough for the inner cities, while his followers quarrelled over whether he was bi-racial or post-racial. In a country where ‘liberal’ is a term of abuse, his call for affordable health insurance suggested that he was a transplanted European socialist, yet as a presidential candidate he attracted Republican voters who flinched from John McCain and the bubble-brained Sarah Palin.

Obama’s vision of himself is there in his signature, whose initial capitals sketch an elegant psychological diagram. The first ‘B’ is bent into a bow, which in its tensile strength seems to be visualising a phrase that is a favourite of his – Martin Luther King’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. The ‘O’ contains the vertical ‘b’ that follows it in his surname, neatly demonstrating that he is global, all-encompassing, while at the same time being centred and balanced. Perhaps he places such emphasis on the initials because the words they stand for are so shifty, so apt to be misunderstood or distorted. Introducing himself in Boston, he defensively played up his exoticism; ever since, right-wingers have therefore questioned whether he is native-born and can legitimately hold the office of president, finally forcing him to publish his birth certificate earlier this year.

As he told his Boston audience, Barack means ‘blessed’ – yet his Kenyan relatives, ignoring the benediction, fondly Anglicise him by calling him ‘Barry’, while his Texan grandfather used to address him as ‘Bar’. Genevieve Cook, the Australian woman with whom he lived during his time as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, pronounced his first name – according to David Maraniss in Barack Obama: The Making of the Man – with a musical trill on the ‘r’: it was her way of customising him, giving her a hold on a man who remained elusive. Maraniss suggests that at school in Honolulu Obama could have been mistaken for an Asian–American, since his name sounds Japanese. In fact the adolescent Obama told his schoolfellows that his surname was a tribal epithet, which meant ‘burning spear’ and singled him out as a chieftain. (He also put it about that he was related to Indonesian royalty.) He confesses in Dreams from My Father that the etymology was “a lie”; let’s politely call it a fiction.

When Obama moved from New York to Chicago in 1985, one of the black pastors whom he telephoned assumed that his ethnically indeterminate voice belonged to an Irishman called ‘O’Bama’. Other acquaintances called him ‘Alabama’ or ‘Yo Mama’. Hillary Clinton remembers that after the 2004 speech, an impressed but bewildered friend asked her, “Who is this Barack Bama?” She corrected the friend’s error, then explained, “It’s Swahili for Bubba”: a clever but somewhat rueful joke, given that ‘Bubba’ is the generic nickname for Southern roisterers like her own wayward husband. When she and Obama competed for their party’s nomination four years later, the columnist Maureen Dowd had renamed them ‘Hillzilla’ and ‘Obambi’ – a fire-breathing dinosaur against a cute Disneyfied faun. His middle name, ‘Hussein’, a tribute to his father’s Muslim heritage, became an inconvenience during the 2008 campaign. McCain’s attack dogs made a point of using it, and the bigoted radio host Rush Limbaugh taunted him as “Osama Obama”. As Clinton’s support receded during the primaries, a devious adviser suggested that she should hint at Obama’s “lack of American roots”. It’s good to see that the funny name has since become a source of less harmful fun. Appearing on David Letterman’s talk show in June to lecture Americans about healthier eating, Michelle Obama held up a vegetable likeness of her husband, an etching of his face surrounded by broccoli tufts. This, she revealed, was “Barack-oli”.

Obama may be edible but he remains unknowable, even after four years under scrutiny. What’s his dirty secret, the thing his minders try to keep from us? Not polio, which was Franklin Roosevelt’s unmentionable affliction, or priapism, which was John F Kennedy’s little frailty. The vice that Obama covers up is at once toxic and trivial: he smokes (at least when there’s no one looking). It’s hard to disapprove, especially given his candour about his experimentation with drugs in his college days: unlike Clinton and George W Bush, he admits that he inhaled. I doubt that we’ll ever discover anything more shaming about him.

His mystery is self-engendered, like the mystique of any celebrity. He presents a collage of contradictory faces to the camera. Whenever he bounces down the grandiose stairs at the front door of Air Force One, he’s a symbol of American confidence, privilege and energy. But he can also play a dogged political scrapper, as he did in July when addressing supporters during a Virginia rainstorm that soaked him to the skin: Republican commentators snarled that he was behaving like a union agitator. A few days after this, his role was that of a sitcom husband. At a basketball game between the US and Brazil, he smooched with his wife and coaxed her to kiss him, aware that a camera was projecting their embrace onto a giant screen. At the end of the same week, after the mass murder at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, he switched to being the sober, grizzled father of the nation and reminded Americans (who dislike hearing such home truths) that life is short.

Obama can negotiate the changes of register with such finesse because he is the first president to have a nodding acquaintance with structuralism and cultural theory, which he picked up in the courses he took at Columbia, and in Dreams from My Father he talks the talk when describing how as a teenager he learnt to “slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning”. Everything, this implies, is reducible to language – but language is nothing more than air and artifice, while the self, so mutable in Obama’s case, is a fictional character. His mother, it ought to be remembered, was an anthropologist, aware that what we take to be ancestral folkways are patterns of learned behaviour, meaningful because they are so intricately structured.

It’s significant as well that Obama went to Chicago to work as what the sociological jargon calls a ‘community organiser’, coaxing a population of poor blacks to fight for better services, as when he mobilised the residents of Altgeld Gardens – an anything but pastoral group of apartment blocks adjacent to a poisoned river and a sewage treatment plant – to demand the removal of asbestos from their buildings. A theory underlay the practice of organising: a community is one more structure, which means that it doesn’t automatically exist but has to be invented, cultivated.

Obama explained that his task as an organiser involved “building a culture” by “building up stories”. He amassed the experiences of the teenage mothers and derelict elders he met, as if compiling an anthology; paying attention to them was an act of validation, proof that “people in the neighbourhood can be heroes”. Yet at the same time he conceded that this personal and communal empowerment might be no more than a shared delusion. He was holding out the hope of “collective redemption”; the religiosity in his phrase, however, shouldn’t be taken literally. The sociologist Emile Durkheim described religion as a kind of “mystic mechanics”, energising bodies and making people feel they were infused by some supernatural force. The same sensation thrills through those who are enrolled in a movement, like the tenants of Altgeld Gardens when Obama led them downtown to confront the city’s housing bureaucrats. His rhetoric, picked up at the black churches he attended, may sound messianic, but he uses it with a wry intellectual self-awareness that makes him an agnostic messiah.

He was equally careful when dealing with his indeterminate racial identity. Maraniss describes basketball as Obama’s “way into blackness” in rainbow-hued Hawaii. In Chicago, he took an advanced course in being black, trying out the appropriate lingo and teaching his body to mimic local customs. When critics remarked on George W Bush’s swaggering gait, Bush sneered, “In Texas it’s called ‘walking’.” On Chicago’s South Side, the moves were different – equally nonchalant, but focused less on haughty shoulders than on swivelling hips and relaxed, buckling knees. In The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick quotes Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush, a former leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, who sardonically marvelled at the way Obama got his bottom half to rotate almost languorously as he crossed a room. “Lemme tell you,” said Rush after performing a balletic parody for Remnick’s benefit, “I never noticed that he walked like that back then!”

The perception is accurate, though we can ignore Rush’s anger about an “educated fool” pretending to be a homeboy. Obama understood that he would be judged as much on how he looked as what he did. As head of state, he has the tricky task of representing an America that is multicultural; his body therefore sends out mixed signals. In the same way, his diction alters as he travels round the country. Up north his speech is clipped, with sibilants ending in a slight whistle; as soon as he crosses into lower, steamier latitudes, it takes on a jazzier rhythm and oozes like molasses. Obama flips and flexes with slippery ease, and it may be pointless to speculate about who he is when he’s alone – except that he will probably be smoking.

*

Norman Mailer, writing about Kennedy, made the startling claim that the president “embodies nothing” and “personifies nothing”, however tightly he wraps himself in the flag. The job is power, or a power vacuum filled by the personality of whoever occupies it. In recent decades, the media have turned politics into a performing art, so that an incumbent’s models are now not Kennedy or Reagan but Michael Douglas as the kind, gentle widower who romances an environmental activist in The American President, or Harrison Ford as the gung-ho patriot who battles terrorists with his bare fists in Air Force One, or, at worst, Morgan Freeman as the tormented instigator of an apocalypse in The Sum of All Fears. Ideology and policy count for less than the winsome charm of Douglas, Ford’s feisty stamina or Freeman’s sombre gravitas. It hardly matters that those qualities are incompatible. A president can be anything at all – a tightrope-walking existentialist or a belligerent bully (Kennedy and Johnson), a paranoid eavesdropper or an indiscreet schmoozer (Nixon and Clinton), a dull organisation man or a dimwitted cowboy (Bushes senior and junior). Power, as those who seek it always find, is merely a potential, the capacity to do things (or, in the case of the indolent George W Bush, to do nothing much except start a couple of whimsical, unwinnable wars).

Given his freedom to reinvent the role, what exactly did Obama want to embody or personify? When announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2007, he chose to speak in Springfield, the Illinois capital where he began his political career as a state senator. Springfield was also the home of honest Abe Lincoln, foremost among America’s secular saints, and Obama of course paid homage to “the tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who freed the slaves. He said that he’d learnt from Lincoln about three kinds of power. The second of these was “the power in conviction”, the third was “the power in hope”, but the first, and for Obama the most important, was “the power in words”. The Gettysburg Address, however, is a mere 272 words long; Lincoln was a man of action, not a speaker, whereas Obama may be primarily an orator, a preacher and a writer. Adept at inspiring or arousing people, he has scant interest in the sordid business of doing deals and agreeing to trade-offs to get legislation passed. It is easy for the stilted Romney to disparage Obama’s eloquence, as he did in Washington in June, by remarking that “words are cheap”, but it’s also reasonable to ask whether words alone can “transform a nation”, which is what Obama in his Springfield speech said he aimed to do.

Obama doesn’t quite think or behave like a professional politician. George W Bush recently excused himself from attending this year’s Republican convention by saying, “I crawled out of the swamp and I’m not crawling back in.” Sleazy as the remark was, it acknowledged that politics is foul. (Perhaps that’s why Bush, greeting guests at the White House, was once glimpsed holding his hand out to receive a squirt of sanitiser from an aide. Unfortunately he had just shaken the hand of the junior senator from Illinois, and Obama, glancing back, coldly took note as Bush was disinfected.) Obama is no swamp-dweller. The petty, politics of the state legislature in Springfield irritated him; hence his rapid graduation to the US Senate, though he found the Washington version little better. “He was so bored being a senator,” a member of his staff whispered to Remnick. Obama’s interest was ideas, not legalistic squabbling about drafts of bills or the fusty rituals of procedure. In Game Change, a book on the 2008 campaign, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reveal that the idea to push Obama onwards and upwards before he had completed a single term in the Senate came from Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic Party majority: he advised Obama to run for president because he was so disengaged and disgruntled in his current post.

Obama needed little urging. When only 22, he asked a New York crony, “Do you think I will be president of the United States?” That was the goal, and what mattered was doing the impossible to achieve it: everything after the inauguration would probably be an anticlimax, a return to business as usual. Looking back from inside the White House, Obama has said that in those early days he wanted to be “a leader outside of politics”, like the civil rights activist Bob Moses. This could be his single affinity with Sarah Palin, who said when announcing that she wouldn’t run for the presidency this year that the office might be a little limiting for someone who reserved the right to stray ‘off message’ and ‘go rogue’. Despite its self-importance, her remark stumbled across a truth that Obama too has painfully discovered: the most powerful man (or woman) in the world can declare wars with impunity, but the balance of constitutional powers means that in everything else the president has limited room for manoeuvre.

Obama’s rarest and most refined quality is his capacity for self-questioning. This detachment from the oddity of his own hybrid existence is essential for an autobiographer, and might have been appropriate for one of the philosopher-kings of antiquity; for a president it is more like a handicap. The occupant of the Oval Office is supposed, as George W Bush once gruffly said, to be “the decider”. Obama has a different view of the proper presidential mentality. In a speech on global affairs in 2006, he criticised Bush for lacking irony, though that’s a mental skill defined by the awareness of alternatives and multiple meanings, which can sometimes make it an alibi for indecision. Obama himself is a keen ironist, aware that events sometimes catch him out. He smiled at an embarrassing coincidence when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009: he got the news soon after announcing his intention to dispatch 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

In more personal terms, his reserved, ironic posture can apparently be infuriating. During their relationship, Genevieve Cook felt – according to diaries quoted by Maraniss – that a veil separated him from others, that he retired behind a poker face to preserve his integrity, that he was emotionally out of reach. One day she told Obama that she loved him. Relationships are held together by the unnecessary reiteration of such endearments; the phrase called for a reply as automatic as the second line of a rhyming couplet. But what Obama said in response was “Thank you”. Was Cook merely a member of his audience or his electorate, not a partner in his life? And if he didn’t reciprocate her feelings and was avoiding an uncomfortable truth, shouldn’t he have told a fib?

Ironists are liable to neuter or paralyse themselves by their habit of seeing too many sides of the question. Trying to organise the South Siders in Chicago, Obama discovered that they didn’t want be told the truth, which was that their problems – drugs, gangs, welfare dependency – had complex causes and wouldn’t be easily solved. He felt equally helpless on his first visit to Jerusalem, when he realised the absurdity of expecting “that this conflict might somehow end in our time, or that America … might have any lasting say over the course of the world” – unpresidential, even un-American sentiments! While recognising that “in politics, like religion, power lay in certainty”, he recoiled from such passionate conviction because he knew that “one man’s certainty always threatened another’s”; he preferred his own honest doubt, even though it could be corrosive. In Dreams from My Father, he remembers a speech he made as a student in Hawaii denouncing South African apartheid. He could tell from the clapping that he’d performed well, but he remained outside the event, “watching, judging, sceptical”. In a fit of adolescent priggishness he resolved, rather prematurely, to stop giving speeches. He took the vow, he told a friend, because the reaction to his words “makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill.” Nowadays he keeps quiet about these twinges of revulsion, but the discontent must surely have grown more intense after 200,000 people gathered to cheer him in Berlin during his 2008 overseas campaign trip and another million and a half crowded into the National Mall in Washington to see him take the oath of office.

Obama’s fans don’t require him to justify himself: all we ask of celebrities is that they make an appearance, and permit a photograph to be taken. In June he dismayed supporters by becoming a plaything for Anna Wintour, Vogue’s fearsomely stylish dictatrix, and Sarah Jessica Parker. This gilded pair organised a fundraising dinner for him in New York at which guests were charged $40,000 a head. Wintour invited paupers to enter a lottery that gave them a chance to be introduced to the President; the evening, Parker gushed, would be “fabulous”. Feasting with these panthers, Obama made Romney look like a populist. Soon afterwards, an elderly woman in Ohio expired of excitement when Obama visited her humble diner. At 8.30 am, Josephine Harris served him a nondescript breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, and hugged him as he sped off on an electioneering tour of this crucial state; later that morning she complained of fatigue and a tingling sensation, then went into cardiac arrest and died. Obama, aloft once more in Air Force One, telephoned his condolences. “I’m sure this was her highlight,” said Harris’ sister. “She loved Obama.”

For those who expected results rather than a photo-op in Obama’s charismatic presence, disillusionment set in almost as soon as he took office. That’s the cruel logic of American politics, which creates presidents in order to destroy them. After JFK’s assassination, the late Gore Vidal described him as a modern version of the man-god in ancient fertility rites, slain in public to guarantee a plentiful harvest; the killing, Vidal admitted, stirred those who witnessed it to ecstatic delight. A couple of decades on, assassination became unnecessary (or could be left to incompetent zanies like Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, who threatened Gerald Ford with a gun she’d forgotten to load, and Sara Jane Moore, who fired at him and missed). After Watergate, the media took over the work of bringing the president down or stripping him of his dignity, allowing us to watch the great man writhe in a lengthy, ludicrous agony: Nixon exposed by his own tapes; Clinton quibbling about the semantics of sexual intercourse.

Obama understands the logic of such reversals, and often employs the tropes of tragedy when meditating on them: his buzzword ‘audacity’ – which he used in the title of his collection of speeches, The Audacity of Hope – means the same thing as the giddy ‘hubris’ that provokes the hero’s downfall in Greek drama. “The biggest problem in politics is the fear of loss,” he said in 2000 when he failed, by a humiliating margin, to unseat Bobby Rush in the primary election for a seat in the House of Representatives. “It’s a very public thing, which most people don’t have to go through.” Reflecting on the rebuff suffered by the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections, he said “there is a pattern in American presidencies”, and pointed out that the inaugural fanfare and the promises of co-operation from the other party never last for long. A more recent aside was even more fatalistic: “I’ll miss the plane,” he said, adopting the brace position as he looked ahead to life without Air Force One.

Even Americans who admire him have begun to wonder what he has done to deserve their faith. He can take pride in his reform of health care; otherwise his record is frustrating. His fiscal stimuli haven’t revived the sluggish economy, and he shrinks from telling voters that they shouldn’t expect to go on getting exponentially richer. After the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he seemed to be redistributing blame when he pointedly but inaccurately referred to BP as “British Petroleum”. He was slow to react to the Arab Spring, and had to be pushed into supporting the Libyan rebels by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN. During the stand-off over the budget deficit in July 2010, he seemed to be helplessly sulking in his office, reluctant to twist arms and beg for favours when his high-minded appeals failed to move the Republicans. In June this year he enraged supporters by invoking executive privilege to obscure details of a botched operation against Mexican drug cartels on the border. In July and early August, he appeared to be appeasing the gun lobby. Pondering the fragility of life after the shootings at the cinema in Colorado, he initially said nothing about the need to control the sale of assault weapons; after another mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin two weeks later, he again avoided antagonising the National Rifle Association and instead piously blathered about the need for soul-searching.

Though Obama once mocked Reagan’s garrulous way of making “policy by anecdote”, his own chosen methods are not dissimilar. Obsessed with storytelling, he thinks of himself as the nation’s omniscient narrator. In Dreams from My Father, he attempts to “bind my world together” by gathering all he can learn about that absent parent and the unknown world he came from. When he moved to Chicago, he familiarised himself with the city by appropriating stories from the novels he read, “borrowing other people’s memories”. Campaigning throughout the country, he kept his ear cocked for “the stories you miss … when you fly on a private jet”. Before he spoke at the Boston convention he remembered the disadvantaged, disregarded people he had met on his travels and prayed: “Lord, help me to tell their stories.”

Clinton assured Americans that he felt their pain; Obama tells them he is listening, which is not quite so cosily empathetic. People, Obama said in an early speech, “want a narrative arc to their lives”. But this recurring concern with narrative implies that there is no truth and no principles either, only the artful management of an essentially fictitious game plan. Probed about his failures by Charlie Rose this July, Obama admitted that he might have literally lost the plot. He conceded, quizzically referring to himself in the third person, that voters were asking, “Where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?” Still, he insisted that “the nature of this office is to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” Isn’t this the credo of a Hollywood screenwriter, whose contract obliges him to engineer a happy ending whether he believes in it or not?

The teller is coolly set apart from the tale. Obama’s stance is still the marginal one he describes in his post-mortem of that speech about apartheid. Photographed during the assault on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in May 2011, he appears to be an onlooker, not the commander-in-chief. He sits in a corner of the room, shielded by his Vice President; like a sidelined sportsman on the benches, he leans forward to watch the play, which was relayed live to the White House from Pakistan. By default, the magnetic centre of the photograph is Hillary Clinton. She reacts whereas Obama simply observes: one hand is clasped to her mouth as if stifling a cry, the other clutches the pen and the pile of notebooks on her lap, and between them they semaphore that she’s emotionally engaged but remains in control.

Only once have we seen Obama acting like a chief executive, and then it was in jest. In June 2009, as he sat down for a CNBC interview, an impertinent fly buzzed round the room. Doors and windows were opened; the fly pretended to exit, but was lying low. When the interview began, it dive-bombed Obama, vibrating as noisily as a miniature helicopter. Out-takes from the session show him dealing with it. “Get outta here!” he snarls. Then, without missing a beat while he answers a complex question, he waits for the fly to settle on him, casually slaps it with his open palm, lets it drop to the floor, and points to the black blob on the carpet: “I got the sucker! You wanna film that? There it is!” Does he exult out of sight of the cameras, when he’s told that America’s drones have taken out the targets he selects from those infamous hit lists? Were there high fives offstage after the execution of bin Laden?

It’s said that Lyndon Johnson, irate after being asked for the umpteenth time why the Americans were in Vietnam, responded by unzipping his pants and pulling out his meaty penis: here was the force that fuelled American foreign policy. We can be grateful that Obama the ironist dispatched the fly with such dapper grace, rather than resorting to Johnson’s grosser tactics. But I hope, when historians pass judgement, that they find more to praise than Obama’s elegance. When he was sworn in as a senator, his wife took stock of the adulation and said, “Maybe one day he will do something to warrant all this attention.” We’re still waiting, fingers crossed.

*

Back in New York the other day, I picked up a copy of a Murdoch tabloid that had been discarded on a subway seat. It was full, predictably, of jeering editorials about the socialist bogey called ‘Bam’ by Murdoch’s hacks; it also reported on the latest poll, which alleged that a tiny majority of voters now favoured Romney. A pang made me drop the greasy, dishwater-coloured paper. Recovering, I asked myself why the outcome mattered so much – to me, and to the rest of the non-American world.

Perhaps it’s because there is no non-American world any more. When Obama’s Kenyan half-sister Auma travelled to Iowa in 2008 to work for his campaign, she met volunteers from Germany and South Africa who said they were there because “the world urgently needs an Obama”. During the Cold War, Arnold Toynbee argued that American suffrage should be truly universal, with those in countries that depended on the empire’s whim given a say in the election of its government: his slogan, adapting that of the American rebels who took up arms against the British empire, was ‘No Annihilation Without Representation’. Despite our current perils, we no longer feel menaced by the US, at least not since Obama restored it to membership of the international community. Yet the country’s power is now even more pervasive than in the heyday of NATO, SEATO, the Good Neighbour policy and the puny ‘Coalition of the Willing’. We all have a kind of dual nationality, because America rules our imaginations. Presidential elections have become a spectator sport beamed out to a global audience, a showbiz contest like the Oscars or the Grammys – and Obama, incidentally, won a Grammy for the audio edition of his memoir.

No, there has to be more to it, even in what Carrie Fisher calls our “American Idolised world”. That’s why we allegorise these elections as a battle between good and evil (upright Gore versus mean, guileful Bush junior), which is better than having to choose the lesser of two evils, as voters do in countries whose politicians are not so messianic or demonic as those in the US. But whoever wins on the first Tuesday in November, we then watch the remorseless enactment of a tragedy in which the hero is destroyed by events (Johnson, at home a liberator and abroad a warmonger; Carter, an idealist ruined by the bungled rescue of American hostages in Iran) or by personal flaws (Nixon, Clinton). We’re disappointed when the protagonist gets through it intact, preserved by dopiness like Ford. Reagan gave the game away by surviving an attempted assassination and joking about it as if he were taking a cushioned fall in a movie: he knew it was all entertainment, even if it involved the risk of his death.

In 1977 – and things have got worse since then – Saul Bellow lamented the degradation of American values: “Success today is in junk bonds, in hype, in capturing the presidency itself with the aid of spin doctors.” Obama captured the presidency with hope not hype, but so did Clinton (who was born, to the delight of the spinners, in the town of Hope, Arkansas). Does change always turn out to mean more of the same? Will the saviour never come? Is Obama just a honey-tongued self-presenter whose caution has begun to look like ineffectuality or moral cowardice?

I don’t want to give up on Obama, and I regard his political failures as almost a badge of honour. But I wonder if he should have remained, as he put it, “improbable”, rather than committing himself to politics, which is the compromise-ridden art of the possible. Should he have been satisfied to address the national conscience in books and speeches instead of running for office and promising to reverse America’s social malaise and economic decline? I hasten to add that these are not grounds for preferring Romney, a plutocrat who pays minimal taxes and is spending $55,000 to install a car lift in one of his residences. I’d vote, if I could, to give Obama four more years, if only because I’ll need that long to make up my mind about him.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad is a writer, academic and regular contributor to the Observer. His books include Verdi and/or Wagner, The Art of the City and Modern Times, Modern Places.
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