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Obama's identity crisis

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If, as the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good, then Barack Obama is his own worst enemy. That becomes clear in the upcoming HBO documentary "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," which is the product of many months of behind-the-scenes access to Obama during the presidential campaign. It reveals -- you will be surprised to learn -- that Barack Obama is pretty close to the most perfect person you will never get to know.

This is what he does not do in the course of the primary and general election campaigns: He does not lose his temper. He does not curse. He does not follow a pretty woman with his eyes or sneak a smoke. He does not dress sloppily. He is always calm and always good-natured and gets emotional only once -- the day his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, the woman who in effect raised him, died in Hawaii. At a campaign event in North Carolina, he expressed his love and gratitude. He cried and, watching, I did, too.

I cried also at the very end of the documentary when African Americans at one of the final campaign events cried at the imminence or the reality of his victory. But election night in this documentary is anti-climactic -- a contained, pallid fizz of emotion. Usually, a picture is worth a thousand words. These pictures, mainly of Obama's closest aides, have nothing to say. If these aides have a sense of history, they were keeping it to themselves.

What's striking about this inside look at Obama is how being inside gets you nowhere. It is virtually the same as being outside. What's also striking about this movie is its lack of arc. Obama is always golden, always going to win and always does. His issue, if it can be called that, is himself. He is something new, something young, something biracial and something black, but he is not something from a political or ideological constituency. He is adored by his fans -- the directors, Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, included -- not for something he's done, but rather for something he is. So far, that has been a weakness in Obama's presidency.

Obama's lack of a bonded -- as opposed to an associative -- constituency is costing him. The political left is carping because it cannot be sure he is one of them. The right carps also, but it alone knows that Obama is not one of them. He doesn't go way back with the unions -- he doesn't go way back with anything -- and the Jews are having second thoughts.

In a conventional movie, the hero has to change. Something has to happen -- the moment when character is revealed. Maybe he loses the girl and has to get her back. In politics, something similar is supposed to happen. You've got to have your PT-109, your Sunrise at Campobello, your walk on the beach with Billy Graham, your combat epiphany in Vietnam, your impoverished childhood, your peanut-farming family, your mission work abroad, your haberdashery that goes bankrupt.

Obama has those moments -- abandoned by his father, biracial in a world that prefers things neat, raised in Indonesia -- but they are not cited as life-changing events. None of them, at any rate, are given much importance in the documentary. Even the bitter primary fight with Hillary Clinton -- all that ugly stuff about race and Bill Clinton, of all people, being accused of playing the race card -- could have been happening to someone else. Obama observes his own life. He's not a participant. He calls Hillary to congratulate her on some insignificant win. "Bye bye," he says without bitterness as he snaps his phone shut. He could have been talking to anyone.

Does any of this matter, or is it merely interesting -- themes for a columnist ducking Afghanistan for yet another week? I am not sure. If Obama ends the deepest recession since the Great Depression, if he enacts health-care reform, if he succeeds in Afghanistan, then his presidency will have been remarkable, maybe even great -- the triumph of intellect. The man will be his own movement.

But if he fails in all or most of that, it will be because it is not enough to be the smartest person in the room. Warmth and commitment matter, too -- a driving sense of conviction, the fulsome embrace of causes and not just issues. That is not something Obama has yet shown. See the movie.

cohenr@washpost.com

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