Lessons from Obama's first year

President Obama and the first family depart for a holiday vacation in Hawaii.
President Obama and the first family depart for a holiday vacation in Hawaii. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
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By Mark Whitaker
Monday, December 28, 2009

Seeking to make sense of Barack Obama's first year as president -- and why he has come across as competent but less magical than many Americans hoped -- I've been rereading his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father."

To revisit that memoir is to be reminded of what a mixed-up childhood the president had. The brilliant but troubled Kenyan father who abandoned his teenage bride and their infant son. The footloose mother who took "Barry" to Indonesia with a second husband, then shipped him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. The sense of alienation he felt as a young black man growing up with few African American friends or role models.

Given all that rejection and dislocation in his youth, is it any wonder Obama became so invested in imposing order on his adult life? Chubby as a kid, wayward as a teen, he developed formidable personal discipline, down to his daily exercise routine and abstemious eating and drinking habits. He made a home for himself in Chicago and sought out the stability of marriage and fatherhood.

Obama also aspired to bring order to the world around him. He set out to resolve urban disputes as a community organizer; he made peace between student factions as editor of the Harvard Law Review; he ran for office as a bridge-builder who could unite blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans.

As a candidate for president, that disciplined, linear, conciliatory approach to life helped Barack Obama defeat the fractious campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It was exactly the right temperament to help Americans avert a fiscal and emotional meltdown in the early days of the financial crisis.

But as the French say, we all have the faults of our virtues. In President Obama's case, the highly organized defenses he developed as a result of his dysfunctional childhood may have left him ill-prepared to confront the more unruly forces of cynicism, egotism and self-interest that hold sway in Washington, on Wall Street and on the world stage.

On the economy, for instance, the president got right the analysis of what was needed -- a Keynesian infusion of federal dollars to get the system functioning again. But he got the theater of the stimulus wrong. He didn't anticipate how Democrats would exploit his haste to prime the pump to stuff the bill with pet liberal projects, thus giving Republicans an opening to brand Obama as a big-government radical.

On financial regulation, Obama earnestly assumed that the bankers who had helped create the crisis would feel an obligation to help clean it up and prevent it from happening again. He was wrong. The Wall Street executives proved to have no visible interest in the public interest, just in their own selfish desire to profit from the bailout and keep themselves as free as possible from future oversight.

On Afghanistan, the president believed he could conduct a thoughtful, confidential policy review to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam and Iraq. He didn't bargain for the manipulative daily leaks, from generals and skeptical advisers alike, that limited his options and made his deliberation look like dithering.

On health care, Obama's studious decision to avoid the mistakes of "Hillarycare" and delegate the bill-writing to Congress may yet be vindicated if a reform act passes next year. But he underestimated how giving legislators the keys to the car would drag out the process and allow grandiose senators to hijack the vehicle and demand to be paid off with side deals and media attention.

Yet, if this first year has sometimes made President Obama seem caught off-guard and frustrated by the meanness and mayhem of Washington, no one should assume that he won't learn from the experience.

The other theme running through "Dreams From My Father" is Obama's capacity for self-examination and self-improvement. He has applied that introspection to becoming a better person, a better writer and speaker, and a better politician. In Hawaii for the holidays, taking the long walks he so misses at the White House, Obama may well be reflecting on what he needs to do to be a more effective president.

Exercising power, he may now see, involves more than giving impressive speeches and seeking common ground. As Ronald Reagan showed, it requires a sense for majesty and mystery. As LBJ demonstrated, it demands a behind-the-scenes talent for flattery and intimidation. As JFK proved, it helps to have an ironic, rather than a self-righteous, view of human motives and vanity. And as that other product of a messy childhood, Bill Clinton, could tell you: It's not about bringing order to the world around you. It's about learning to love the madness of governing before you can master it.

The writer is Washington bureau chief for NBC News.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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