The path taken by Obama from demographic and geographical margins to the presidency goes a long way toward shedding light on his traits of seeming detachment and passivity which are the greatest weakness of his presidency. He has been much criticized for these by supporters, especially progressives. And political adversaries of his, mainly the more conservative Republicans, and anti-Obama cultural activists such as members of the so-called Tea Party have been able to put Obama on the defensive and cloud or complicate his positions and initiatives. The path taken by Obama from childhood to the presidency was not one sought by him or carved out by him, but rather one which opened up for him.
As is well known, Obama’s early years were spent mostly in Hawaii, where he was born, with a few years in Indonesia. After a private high school in Hawaii, Obama went to Occidental College in California. Two years later, he went to Columbia University in New York City; then to Harvard Law School. This educational path was made possible for him on the basis of recognition Obama attracted (and merited) which aroused the largesse and social sensibilities of influential men in educational institutions along Obama’s way. They offered Obama financial assistance, recommendations, and connections which allowed him to move to the next step of his upward mobility.
Obama’s path consisted most importantly and beneficially for him of opportunities which were offered to him; not as in the lives of most, of crucial, fateful decisions he made or desires or dreams he pursued singularly and passionately. This general pattern continued into Obama’s post-college years when he was offered a teaching position and also a room where he could do his writing, particularly his autobiography which came to be titled Dreams from My Father, at the University of Chicago, and was later solicited to be a Democratic candidate for president.
The pattern of Obama’s life resembles that of an outstanding, star athlete more than it does that of the large majority who go into politics and attain high office. Obama was sought out for his outstanding natural talents–in his case, intelligence and affability–and his promise. He did develop these and exercise these in the paths he went along that were opened to him. But availing oneself of opportunities coming one’s way because of one’s natural talents does not call for the development of improvisation, the summoning of will and dependence on it, introspection, study of ambiguities, inventory of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and having to make and make the best of wrenching decisions.
That Obama does not have such experiences or traits as improvisation, etc., is evident in the style of his autobiography Dreams from My Father. It it, Obama shows an inquisitiveness about his origins and the reasons for his sense of himself and his observations. But inquisitiveness to answer some questions is different from a trait of introspection. Such a search largely satisfied by the content of the autobiography is different from making fateful decisions in ambiguous circumstances.
The disappointments over Obama as president resemble the disappointments over the star athlete too. As fans of the star athlete are disappointed when he fails to fulfill the promise they saw in him, so are supporters and well-wishers of Obama disappointed over his failure to fulfill the promise they saw in him. But whereas the promising athlete’s failure is attributed to chance and the nature of competitive sport, Obama’s failures are attributed to absence or weakness of traits normally required in a strong political figure, particularly one seen by many as one who would be a transformative figure.