Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic Convention last night- probably the highest profile speech he will give during his last months in office– was something of a greatest hits reel of his previous rhetoric, combined together in a format designed to appeal to swing voters, presumably married suburbanites and retirees. The emphasis was on optimism, our forward journey from the Founding Fathers towards a More Perfect, Diverse, Inclusive Union, with admiring references to at least two Republican Presidents (Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt) and obeisance made to common ground with conservatives (allegedly not shared by Donald Trump) along the way. The foreground in this, as always, was Obama himself– the progress his Administration made in various crises and endeavors as well as his personal story- the 2004 DNC Speech, Michelle and their two daughters, his Kansas roots on his mother’s side.
There is a temptation among conservatives to see Obama’s constant allusions to himself and his background as narcissism, and this may well be true. He would hardly be the first narcissistic politician. It is critical to recognize, though, that this centering of the American story around his personal story- the trademark move in the speeches he drafted himself, and since adopted by his various speechwriters in working with him- was absolutely crucial to his own, remarkable political success, and says as much about the times we live in and our political needs as about his own psychology. Lincoln’s log-cabin origins were there, to be used politically and rhetorically, but the log cabin did not intrude on every discussion of abolition and secession in the way that Obama’s background often walks onstage from the wings when he is discussing immigration or racism.
Why is this? Why is identity so crucial not just to how politicians choose to present themselves, but, evidently, how we want them to present themselves?
You cannot make any kind of explanation of Obama without discussing race, and in particular without discussing how Obama was, first in Chicago and then nationally, offering an idealized version of the One We’ve Been Waiting For, the black man who combines stereotypically black virtues of eloquence and passion with stereotypically white virtues of temperance, analysis, and restraint. Like the imaginary Son of Sydney Poitier whom Will Smith’s character impersonates in Six Degrees of Separation, Obama was and is unusually professionally successful– he was, for example, offered a tenured position at U. Chicago without any academic publications and a $1,000,000 per year Presidency of the Joyce Foundation without much Foundation or corporate experience, years before the 2004 DNC– in no small part because white people, particularly well-off white people, found in him a release from questions about their own privileged identity and from racism’s moral stain. I believe in Obama, therefore I am not racist. This was something Obama has long understood about himself– that he is a vehicle for other people’s aspirations and desires, especially (and for a while pretty much only) for white people. Something less often noted is that, apart from the Old South and his two home states, Obama’s best showings during the 2008 primary were often among well-off supermajority white states, while Hillary did better with Diversity (and Greater Appalachia).
White liberals’ particular feelings about African-Americans aside, there is an even broader question that always occurred to me when thinking about Obama, and to a lesser extent with Hillary, Trump, and other candidates. That is, how much of any job- not just being President- is about who you are, not just in the sense of having certain abilities, skills, and dispositions, but in the sense of projecting a certain personal history and self?
“Tell me about yourself. How did you get to this point in your career? Where do you expect to be in five years?” are the HR Department’s versions of these questions, and my own suspicion is that the changes in the economy that make work primarily about making choices and delivering consensus rather than about accomplishing defined tasks, and the diminishing marginal returns to effort in an increasingly technological world, are centrally responsible for the importance we place on who is working rather than on what work is being done.
Obama is the world MVP of answering those job interview questions about himself, and his story- shaped for the 2004 DNC or the 2008 campaign trail or various presidential addresses- has mutated in shape and emphasis as one or another aspect of his biography becomes necessary for this or that audience or moment. Outside of work, tribe of some sort or another is usually the way we tell ourselves who we are; Obama’s apparent tribelessness– Kenyan and Kansan, Hawaiian and Indonesian, New Yorker and Chicagoan and Harvard Law Grad– was central to his appeal to whites over the years, even if his own 1990s autobiography is pretty explicit that his story is about choosing an identity as an American black man. That act, of selecting from a menu of options of identities, is ironically a fairly white thing: the running joke at my first high school was that as a white 9th grader you had to choose to be a Jock or a Burnout, a drama geek or a band nerd, a slacker or a skater or a hippy, while if you were black you were just black and didn’t need to choose (or have a choice) at all.
In the end, even if Obama did not win a majority of the white vote in 2008 or 2012, it was whites’ choice of him that gave him the Presidency to a great degree (about 59% of his support in 2008 was from white people). As he steps to the back or side of the stage, to comment on other actors whose lines now move the action forward, I wonder if we will see Obama’s election not as a beginning of a postracial America but as the high point of the tribeless tribalism of SWPLism, which now will give way to more narrowly constructed identities, more limited selves, the story that we tell the HR Department becoming all we are, and all we do.