How Obama will write and rewrite his presidency.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 13 2009 6:13 PM

Palimpsest President

How Obama will write and rewrite his presidency.

Barack Obama.
Barack Obama

In his valedictory press conference Monday, George Bush talked about the emotional burden of the presidency, challenged the notion that the job can be isolating, and repeatedly mused about what he'll do in retirement. These observations were remarkable not so much for their insight but for their mere existence. Like his father, Bush has steadfastly (and sometimes defiantly) resisted self-analysis—in private as well as in public. This may be the most fundamental difference between the 43rd and the 44th president: In Barack Obama, America will have a president who not merely allows for self-reflection. He revels in it.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In Bush's final press conference, we saw what may be the last flash of presidential anti-introspection for at least four years. Discussing the emotional weight of the office, which has been known to cause presidents to become self-reflective, Bush quickly dismissed such moments as wallows in self-pity. "I believe this—the phrase 'burdens of the office' is overstated. You know, it's kind of like, why me?" he said, taking on a whiny voice and hunching over. "Oh, the burdens, you know. 'Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?' It's just—it's pathetic, isn't it, self-pity." (Which makes me wonder what Bush thinks of Lincoln, a president he has been reading a lot about lately and one who suffered nearly crippling bouts of depression.)

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Obama, meanwhile, is not just a writer. He's an inveterate memoirist whose self-reflection is not merely an exercise in self-love (as all memoir-writing is, in part) but an act of personal definition. It's how he has come to know himself and create himself, writing and rewriting his history as he lives it. He is our first palimpsest president since Theodore Roosevelt.

In his first book, Dreams From My Father, Obama describes growing up in several worlds but feeling part of none of them. "I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there," he writes, a line that could be on every page. Through the book, we see him try on personas and discard them, retaining some elements of each as he builds his new self.

Bush, by contrast, still has much of the Midland, Texas, identity of his boyhood, which he has jealously guarded all his life. In his final press conference, it was natural that Bush would refer to the opinion of his Midland friends.

Obama's self-authorship didn't end with the publication of his first book. In a 1996 interview discovered this week by ABC News, he discussed himself and his marriage: "I think that in a certain way, I've tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends or ideas."

In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, he regularly plumbs his own feelings to define the contours of his new self. It is this practice, perhaps, that helped him form a quick empathy with Bush. "I find the president and those who surround him pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrong headed I might consider their policies to be … I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share."

Obama not only shares the same values as Bush; he shares a lot of the same traits. Still married to his first wife, he is the devoted father of two girls. He loves sports, is rigorous about his exercise routine, and has struggled with addiction (though clearly not at the same level). Like Bush, Obama talks easily and openly about how Jesus Christ fundamentally changed the direction of his life and how Christianity ultimately gave him that sense of belonging that had been absent for so long. (For Obama, however, unlike Bush, self-reflection and self-knowledge seem to be a part of his religious experience. During a 2004 conversation about religion, Obama said: "I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I'm constantly asking myself questions about what I'm doing, why am I doing it."

One of his best speeches as a senator—an attempt to find a new synthesis between religion and politics—was founded on a reconsideration of an event that had happened months earlier. He'd given a response to a question about religion that, on reflection, he'd found wanting.

Obama didn't spend a lot of time during the presidential campaign talking about his inner feelings, but it was clear when he did that he'd been taking careful soundings all along, not just about the circumstances but about his emotional landscape. When he told his best story of the campaign—the "fired up and ready to go" anecdote about being lifted out of the gloom of his early campaign—it was rich with careful detail, even if some of those details were clearly embroidered for effect.

Obama is prospecting and sifting so regularly, he seems to be analyzing his words and cadences even as he speaks. "I think that the themes are consistent," he said last year about speaking in a black church. "I think that there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. Anybody who's spent time in a black church knows what I mean. And so you get a little looser; it becomes a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score." Even his restaurant reviews have multiple layers. (He would make a great blogger).

Obama's penchant for writing and rewriting his story as he's living it has echoes in the policy world as well. Each new president is a work in progress as his policy is matched up to his rhetoric. But Obama seems particularly unpredictable. Pragmatic is becoming the word of his presidency the way change and hope were the words of his campaign. He'll trade away provisions like the $3,000 business tax credit that was once the heart of his stimulus package if the moment calls for it. The left and the right don't quite know what to make of him. He is, as John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine, a party of one.

Obama's natural inclinations are amplified by the nature of the times, which call for ever-changing, on-the-fly policymaking—and the country seems to be in a position to tolerate it. Obama has been reading up on FDR's presidency, which included lots of experimentation and embracing and discarding of entire ideologies. "I experimented with gold and that was a flop," Roosevelt laughed in a conversation with senators about monetary policy. "Why shouldn't I experiment a little with silver?" The current crises may allow President Obama to try out ideas and approaches with the same mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm as he tried on identities as a young man.

How can this help Obama? It may make him more empathetic; since he recognizes the personal roots of his own style of politics, he may be more likely to see others' motivations as well. Bush was a firm believer in his ability to size up someone else's political price, too—but the difference is that while Bush thought he knew what they wanted, Obama thinks he knows what they need.

The danger for politicians who practice excessive pragmatism is that it's hard to know where they stand. Their ability to persuade diminishes as everyone waits for them to change their minds. Just as Obama's flexibility is praised in the wake of Bush's lack of the same, it will almost certainly be criticized. We won't know whether that criticism is justified until Obama actually starts performing in office.

The other rap against thoughtful politicians is that it dooms them to inaction. This would seem to be a proposition no longer worth debating in Obama's case. Still, for those who don't see his election at 47—against considerable odds—to be evidence that he can take action when he needs to, the speed of transition operation should offer sufficient proof that he can make decisions in a snappy fashion.

The question with George Bush was often, Is there anything more complex going on behind that facade? In a lot of ways, it turns out, there wasn't. What you saw—such as Monday's press conference—was pretty close to the complete picture. With Obama, the question is, How much of his true thinking is he actually sharing with us? Thus will we usher in a new era of analysis and observation about what's really going on inside the president's head. If Obama is true to form, he'll be engaged in the task along with the rest of us.

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