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President As Enigma: The Seven Mysteries Of Barack Obama

Leading from behind?
Leading from behind?
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

PARIS - Naive or arrogant? Daring or cautious? Four years after he entered the White House, Obama remains an enigma.

Naive or cunning?
"I never saw someone so competitive. What is the only thing that Barack Obama hates more than losing? Losing twice," confides Robert Gibbs, his former press advisor. But Obama wants to win fair and square. When he plays basketball, he is furious if he thinks any of his opponents are letting him win.

One possible psychological explanation: fatherless and marked by the feeling of being "different," Obama has struggled all his life to be an insider, at Harvard, the University of Chicago, or Washington, by proving his exceptional qualities.

This, however, is the same Obama that the left calls naïve, and accuses of having wasted nearly two years trying to compromise with the right on healthcare reform, before finally being forced to pass the measure without a single conservative vote.

Instead of gauging his strength and coming into the arena ready to fight, Obama believed his popularity and charisma would be enough to create a spirit of compromise, just as he let himself be persuaded that he could demand that Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu stop any further settlements in the West Bank and it would just happen. This seems strangely naive for a fierce competitor.

Outgoing or solitary?
A rock-star president who enthralls crowds, with a radiant smile and contagious charisma-- everyone thought that Obama's arrival at the White House would be the end of the boring, early-to-bed George and Laura Bush era. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be an open house for artists, welcoming, engaged.

The reality, four years later: a solitary president who spends his free time mostly with his family. "This is the best spot in the whole White House," he recently told journalist Michael Lewis, pointing to a second-floor balcony. "Michelle and I come out here at night and just sit. It’s the closest you can get to feeling outside. To feeling outside the bubble."

As with Bill Clinton, people get goose bumps when Obama comes into the room. He electrifies those he meets. But the comparison stops there. Clinton was a virtuoso of relationships with the political world, alternating phone calls, cocktail parties and backslaps. Obama, though, often is the despair of his advisors, refusing to pick up the phone to thank, cajole or consult people.

Trusting or arrogant?
The president’s nickname "No-drama Obama" has stuck in all fairness. Obama keeps his temper under control and does not react impulsively. This could be seen during the 2008 primaries, when he was far behind Hillary Clinton, but never seemed to panic. As president, he has never given the impression of reacting erratically to events, like Bill Clinton.

Obviously, there is a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. Bush's strategist Karl Rove once said maliciously about Obama, "He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by." That is unfair. But there was a hint of Obama's top-of-the-class arrogance in the last televised debate, when he said: "I think Governor Romney maybe has not spent enough time looking at how our military works."

Inexperienced or skillful?
Dan Germain, a Texas Republican, says, "I don't know why Obama was elected. What had he accomplished until then? He had spent two years in the Senate without doing anything. Then as soon as he gets elected, he gets the Nobel Peace Prize!"

For the past four years, the Republicans have been trying to promote the image of an accidental, novice president, incapable of guiding the country out of the crisis, while Mitt Romney, in contrast, "knows how jobs are created and destroyed."

A learning period is a reality for every president, and there was no ready solution for a crisis this brutal and unpredictable. Of course, Obama did not arrive at the White House completely unprepared. He was surrounded by many Clinton-era advisors. It is true, though; that it took him a while to understand how Washington works.

According to Ron Suskind in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Larry Summers once confided to then Budget Director Peter Orszag, "You know, Peter we're really home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

Daring or cautious?
Obama is both. Cautious, when he acted to promote the Stimulus Package or to help millions of homeowners struggling with their mortgages. Cautious, too, when he decided to treat Wall Street with kid gloves in order not to rock the finance boat.

Cautious, however, in foreign policy in relation to China, Russia, or Israel, to the point of being described as a president who "leads cautiously from the back."

That was a few weeks before the Bin Laden operation, and no one since then has accused Obama of being timorous. But he does sometimes-- and only sometimes-- give the impression of being calculating, to the point of backing off from an obstacle rather than trying to overcome it at the risk of injury.

On the left or in the center?
An essay published this fall in Harper"s magazine caused a stir in the microcosm of the American left. Thomas Frank, an influential thinker, writes, What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all means should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover.” The left, in particular, cannot understand how the president could have surrounded himself with men close to Wall Street, like Larry Summers or Tim Geithner.

Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, is critical too, admonishing the president for a too-timid Stimulus Plan. Krugman does admit the historic importance of the healthcare reform, for which Obama risked his presidency. If he is re-elected, Obama will be able to implement the most important healthcare reform in the American security system since Medicare, the health insurance for the old created by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. That is on the left, isn't it?

Dove or hawk?
It is one of the most familiar zinger of Mitt Romney"s campaign: Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” abroad. This is not true, of course, but that does not keep Romney from hammering away at the theme. "I will not and I will never apologize for America." Implied, of course, is: as a good Republican, I will be a hawk, unlike Obama who was a dove like Carter.

The accusation is absurd when addressed to the man who approved the extraordinarily daring raid to kill Bin Laden. What is true is that Obama has never given a clear picture of his views on military force. When is it legitimate or excessive, necessary or superfluous? This could be seen in Libya, even if, in the end, it was Obama himself, against the advice of his generals, who decided to save Benghazi. This is seen, too, in Syria. "They had a hard time getting into step with the Arab Spring," says James Mann, author of The Obamians, a book on Obama's foreign policy.

First they changed the paradigm, going from support for dictatorial regimes to a preference for democracy. It was an enormous change, but they have encountered a number of problems in applying this principle to countries like Bahrain. So they have opted for support of "reform." Translation: reform does have to mean a regime change.

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