The first black president of the United States is one of the loneliest people on the planet.
And President Barack Obama’s iron-willed self-discipline and interpersonally cool traits — traits that many credited with his improbable rise to the White House—have recently been interpreted in two journalistic accounts as liabilities that depict him as a distant commander in chief.
In Double Down: Game Change 2012, journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new narrative of last year’s presidential campaign, Obama is portrayed as a president surrounded by a small coterie of trusted advisers who was unable or unwilling to expand his political circle, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that such a move would enhance his own political fortunes and the nation’s.
The preternatural campaigner whose charms reverberated from the United States all the way to Europe, Africa and the wider world during the 2008 election has, the authors argue, proved to be a remarkably insular president. Obama has routinely shied away from taking pictures with major donors, and his mistreatment of money supporters became Beltway chatter, including “the $30,000-a-plate dinner at the Four Seasons in 2010, at which Obama, after devoting a brisk seven minutes to each table, retreated to a private room to sup with (Valerie) 8 Jarrett and his body man, Reggie Love — a tale that traveled so widely it became sort of an urban legend.”
According to Halperin and Heilemann, Obama’s relationship with members of the Congressional Black Caucus is tense. Obama balked at any hint of criticism from black politicians, who have chafed at his willingness to broach policy compromises that many felt were established on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans, who happened to be their constituents.
Perhaps Double Down’s biggest revelation is the president’s apparent unwillingness to craft new personal relationships in the White House, an issue also tackled by Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum. In a piece titled The Lonely Guy, he argues that Obama’s ability to live in a world of his own choosing — what might be called a personal and political bubble—has become a liability for him as president. Purdum writes, “The latest round of ‘what did the president know and when did he know it’ on the disastrous rollout of Obamacare and the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone raised troubling questions: Were Obama’s aides too afraid to tell him? Was he too detached to ask? Or both?”
The article is noteworthy for its attention to the way in which Obama’s personal biography shaped his worldview.
As chronicled in his best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and more objectively by biographer David Remnick in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama and by David Maraniss in Barack Obama: The Story, Barack Obama went through the crucible of race in America and came out the other side with an enduring sense of his personal identity.
But Obama’s own family relationships, coupled with a nuanced understanding of his own complicated racial identity, made him an unusually self-contained individual. As president, Obama has displayed a demeanor in the White House that contrasts with the aw-shucks political backslapping of Bill Clinton’s presidency. More important, Obama’s self-containment and stellar personal behavior have saved the country from the scandals that tainted the Clinton White House (and that indirectly led to George W. Bush’s election), a fact that journalists have largely ignored.
Trying, at times unsuccessfully, to affirm his racial identity and pride as a black man in the face of disappointment from civil rights activists that the White House too easily dismisses as “professional blacks,” Obama has sometimes distanced himself from the very community that gave him a safe haven as a young man in Chicago. And the predominantly white worlds of Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law helped smooth the way for his presidency but have also seemingly increased his distance from the black community. Indeed, the treatment that Obama has, over the past five years, received from politicians, journalists and Washington powerbrokers has signaled that even as the occupant of the nation’s highest office, Obama may never truly be considered a bona fide member of the “presidents club.”
But left unsaid at every negative comparison between Obama and presidents such as Clinton and Lyndon Johnson is both the wish that our current president could act with the same implicit authority that his white predecessors enjoyed and the understanding that, despite his many considerable talents, it’s something he can never hope to achieve.
At the heart of criticism over Obama’s demeanor is the subject of race and performative politics. Journalists, elected officials, donors and even the American public desire an Obama who is deft enough to behave as they hope for and imagine. All want Obama to metaphorically dance to their individual hopes and aspirations. They want him to charm donors, dazzle journalists and win over political enemies by performing the kind of heroic feats that even the best of his predecessors did not consistently achieve.
Amid these circumstances, Obama’s isolation should indict American racial politics for its impossible demands of — and disrespect for — blackness. Because as the nation’s first black president, Obama has faced the enormous added burden of unrealistic (and thus destined to be unrealized) expectations that both transcend and are bound by race. This phenomenon contributes to a racial dynamic so toxic that even a sitting U.S. president feels burdened by its uncanny ability to shape not only perception but also reality.
Thus, Obama now confronts the unasked question that historically marks the relationship between whites and blacks in America — one that was uncovered by the pre-eminent scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem?” It reflects the enduring truth of America’s color lines. But more than a century later, this question continues to haunt American society, touching all blacks, regardless of status or station, all the way to the Oval Office.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University.