Cyril Connolly once said that imprisoned in every fat man was a thin one wildly signaling to be let out. A similar drama has for some time been unfolding in the mind of President Barack Obama. Outwardly, the president seems a cool and commonsensical pragmatist, a dispassionate lawyer with a no-nonsense approach to solving problems. But another, very different character writhes passionately just beneath the surface of the president’s consciousness. This is the messianic dreamer of the social millennium, the prophet of the moment when “the perfection begins”—an intoxicated visionary who signals frantically to be released from bondage.
During the campaign for the White House, the lawyer of modest and sober mien was generally in control. Only occasionally did the wild man slip his shackles. In June 2008, candidate Obama relaxed his vigilance for a moment, and the social prophet in him rose up ecstatically to proclaim the “moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless,” a golden age “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” The mystic was quickly put back in his cave; in the weeks leading up to the election, the level-headed, pragmatic Obama, with his Spock-like habits of reserve, closed the sale.
Then, with the great victory won, the prophet was loosed. The president pledged to redeem the country through a vast expansion of the social state—the $787 billion stimulus program; the long march to bring health care, some 16 percent of the economy, under Washington’s control; the push for cap-and-trade restrictions on carbon emissions that the administration itself privately concluded would cost Americans up to $200 billion a year in new taxes. When a Republican lawmaker questioned the contents of the stimulus, the president replied simply, “I won.”
As a result, there is now a formidable gap between Obama’s plans and the mood of the electorate. The president’s approval rating, according to Gallup, has fallen to 47 percent. A CNN poll finds that 56 percent of Americans now oppose the stimulus, while 58 percent oppose the congressional health care bills. The country, in other words, has begun to regard the president’s moderate pose as skeptically as the old man in Conrad’s Victory regards Axel Heyst: “A puffect g’n’lman. Puffect! But he’s a ut-uto-utopist.”
When, on Wednesday night, the president ascended the rostrum of the House of Representatives to deliver the State of the Union Address, some believed that he would, if only from desperation, renounce the utopist within. Certainly his tone and style suggested that the conciliatory pragmatist was back in the saddle. “Let’s try common sense,” he said. Health care was no longer the main thing: jobs were. The president even made light of his inner messiah: “Now, I’m not naive. I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era.”
But the fingerprints of the passionate prophet were all over the actual proposals. If America needed jobs, the social state would take the lead in creating them. Health care might no longer be the top priority, but Congress should pass the health-care bill anyway, and while it was at it, should get cap-and-trade done, too. Of course there would be a spending freeze—but not for another year. Until then, spend away. Much as Edward Hyde makes a mockery of Henry Jekyll’s pretensions to rectitude in Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable, so the hairy imp who struggles for supremacy in Obama’s soul makes a mockery of the president’s protestations of common sense and fiscal restraint.
No politician can hope to get away with so wild an incoherency, right? Wrong. The president knows that he has gotten away with it. His double personality has been evident since he published his campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006. The tone of the book is as mild and unthreatening as the most soothing of Obama’s orations. But its call to revive a politics of “social solidarity” ought to have put the reader on notice of the deeper tensions in the candidate’s soul.
Surely the president knows that—unless some unlooked-for event alters the landscape—the question isn’t whether the Democrats will fare badly in the midterm elections, but how badly they will fare. Yet in a State of the Union address ostensibly intended to recapture the vital center, the president blithely urged Democratic lawmakers to proceed with his signature social initiatives. He seemed to chide those reluctant to sign their own political death warrants by doing his bidding as suffering from delusions of “campaign fever.”
The weird calm with which Obama contemplates this electoral debacle is consonant with the apparent serenity with which he accommodates the irreconcilable political identities vying for preeminence in his mind. His closest analogue may be Richard Nixon. Nixon’s energy and drive were closely connected to his ability to draw strength from a submerged aspect of his nature which, however politically ruinous it might have been, was at the same time crucial to his political élan. Nixon struggled to keep the personal resentments that burned within him out of sight even as he fed on them; Obama has generally kept his own social-justice resentments under wraps even as they mysteriously fuel his appetite for power. No more than Nixon will Obama douse these smoldering embers; they are, it would seem, too intimately involved in his deepest political fantasies and satisfactions.
We know from his first book, Dreams from My Father, that the young Obama was embittered when he discovered that people looked down on him because he was black. Nixon was no less embittered when he discovered that people looked down on him because he was Nixon. Nixon poured his bitterness into a policy of vindictiveness that he was careful to disguise but could never resist. On the contrary, he caressed and fondled his hatreds: they supplied him with the incentive he needed to go “through the damn fire,” as he put it, to will himself to the top. Eventually, of course, he lost control of his resentments and they destroyed his presidency.
Obama converted his racial bitterness into an ideal of social justice that would right social wrongs. It was evidently this fetish that he cherished inwardly as he climbed ever higher in politics, even if he could never afford to be wholly candid about it in public. The Jeremiah Wright controversy showed him how politically dangerous the social-justice conceit could be; yet even after he reached the top of the political greasy pole, he could not bring himself to discard it. When he took office, the electorate was clamoring for jobs and economic growth; yet like some latter-day Count of Monte Cristo bent on getting even with the system, Obama spent extravagant amounts of political capital on the social-justice imponderables of a universal health-care program to be paid for by “the rich.”
The question now is whether the president has lost control of his talisman, much as Nixon lost control of his own well-rubbed idols. Some have argued that Obama has irretrievably wrecked his presidency by surrendering it to the demands of his social ideal. But the president who appeared on the rostrum on Wednesday seemed as confident as ever of his destiny as an epochal Fourth Eclogue figure. His party is likely to suffer painful defeats in the midterm elections, but he himself is preternaturally at ease. Perhaps with good reason: if, in 2012, he relegates the social prophet in him to the psychological cellar, he may once again use a modest and conciliatory demeanor to convince voters that he is not, at heart, a wild man and a social utopist.