Profiles

Barack Obama: An Outsider Sets His Sights on the Innermost Circle

This article is the cover story of the premier issue (Summer 2007) of
Ameridreams magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Barack Obama has spent years as the consummate outsider. Biracial, he fits neatly into neither black nor white worlds. But his outsider status extends far beyond race. Abandoned by both parents as a child, he lived with grandparents he barely knew, thereby existing on the outskirts of his own family. Growing up in the isolated islands of Hawaii and Indonesia, he lived far from the center of action in this country. Since January 2005, this junior U.S. senator from Illinois has again become the outsider among more seasoned colleagues in Washington, D.C. Strikingly, this perennial outsider now seeks the U.S. presidency, the greatest of insider positions.

Obama has often tried to seem like an insider. Shortly after receiving his undergraduate degree from Columbia University, he moved to Chicago to work at a nonprofit, helping African-American churches organize job-training programs. During those three years on the South Side, he went to great lengths to remake himself as a native son of Chicago. He wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, “I made a chain between my life and the faces I saw, borrowing other people’s memories.” If this rings false, that’s because his motive was probably less about finding community (as he posits) and more about coming to seem authentically black.

He then went to Harvard Law School. Larissa MacFarquhar’s May 2007 New Yorker article about Obama quotes Harvard classmate Kenneth Mack as saying, “When I met him, he just seemed like a black guy from Chicago. He seemed like a Midwestern black man,” as opposed to a biracial guy from Hawaii. Mission accomplished. In MacFarquhar’s view: “His conversion was complete.”

Nowadays in his campaign rhetoric, Obama deflects attention from his outsider status—perversely by drawing attention to it. Within the first sentences of a speech, he pokes fun at his name and appearance, as with this comment at the April 2005 Herblock Foundation Annual Lecture in Washington, D.C.: “I can’t think of an easier target for political cartoonists than a tall, skinny guy with big ears and a funny name.” It’s a clever strategy; before audience members can feel uneasy about ways in which he differs from them, he makes the differences seem more a source of amusement than discomfort.

He also tries to cast himself as part of America’s melting pot. With his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he framed his very existence—as the child of a white Kansan mother and a Kenyan father—as quintessentially American. “I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage,” he said. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story … and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” The oratory greatly impressed a John Kerry speechwriter, who liked how it aligned Obama’s life story with the larger American story. When the speechwriter shared this assessment with Obama, he responded, “That’s exactly what I try to do.”

Although his speech was quite well received, this particular spin on his life doesn’t seem convincing. Is he truly grateful for the diversity of his heritage, or is he mostly pained by it? The memoir certainly suggests the latter. One also wonders whether the audience liked the address because they identified with the story or whether something else was at work.

As Kenyans haven’t traditionally merged with Kansans—and as racial mixing still makes many Americans uneasy—one suspects that Obama’s story did not tap into widespread pride in the nation’s melting pot. When extolling the virtues of that pot, many Americans mainly evoke images of European ancestors, not recent immigrants of a darker hue. However, the popular speech obviously made people identify with Obama at some level. Perhaps that’s because all of us have felt left out at some point, and he appeals to our common woundedness.

Clearly, he wants potential voters to view him as “one of us,” not as “the Other.” This intention sometimes comes across as manipulative. In the convention speech, Obama described himself as “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” If he’s just a gangly kid, rather than a black male adult, he seems unthreatening to the majority. And if that “kid” appears heartbreakingly sincere in his belief that he’ll be accepted, don’t his listeners feel coerced to make this happen?

Despite its calculated diction, the sentence also conveys a touching desire to belong. It communicates the resounding pain of someone who’s been left out in the cold and who hopes that a door will open, admitting him to a warm, inviting space.

Whether one dismisses such comments as mere political rhetoric or views them as a deeper window into Obama’s psyche, his past undeniably submerged him in the pain that only misfits can know. He wrote of this poignantly in his memoir. For instance, when he moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii and started attending a fancy school, his classmates teased him about his father’s being African, one child even asking if Obama’s dad ate people. Obama recalls that in the aftermath, “The novelty of having me in the class quickly wore off for the other kids, although my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow…. A ten-year-old’s nightmare.” In college, he still had “the constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.”

In having an African father, rather than a native-born one, Obama faced a challenge beyond issues of race identity. His paternal roots lay in a distant country of which he knew little. And because the dad left when Obama was only two and died two decades later, he seemed a shadowy, elusive figure to his son. This tenuous link to Kenya tugged at the young Obama, tilting his affiliations ever so slightly away from the United States and toward Africa. He wrote that when he finally headed to Kenya in his mid-20s, he sensed his “own uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.”

It may well be that the pain of Obama’s lifelong outsider status is now driving him toward the presidency, goading him to participate in a glorified popularity contest. One journalist on the independent news website Scoop speculated that, like Bill Clinton, a President Obama could harm the United States by eternally searching for love and approval in a massive public forum, subjecting us all to “another group therapy session.”

So far, though, evidence shows that Obama has channeled his outsider pain into something most productive. Having long dealt with fragmentation in his identity, he now knows how to synthesize differences and to find a peaceful middle ground. As he reaches out to constituents and potential supporters, he makes great use of this talent, imparting a sense of unity. In his keynote address, he said, “E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.”

Because Obama has rolled many identities into one, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has dubbed him “the personification of ‘both-and,’” writing in March 2007 that Obama believes “American politics has seen enough ‘either-or’….”

Indeed, Obama refrains from stoking bitter divisiveness and instead criticizes those who try to divide us with their spin. His website says that “amid the partisanship and bickering of today’s public debate, he still believes in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose—a politics that puts solving the challenges of everyday Americans ahead of partisan calculation and political gain.”

MacFarquhar, who titled her New Yorker piece “The Conciliator,” wrote that Obama has “staked his candidacy on union—on bringing together two halves of America that are profoundly divided….” So far, he has succeeded in this; as MacFarquhar notes, Obama has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate but still appeals strongly to Republicans. She asserts that he actively seeks this bipartisan support.

If Obama manages to win wide margins from both parties and from multiple racial groups in the 2008 presidential election, his outsider status will ironically have led him to the innermost circle in the country. That would be quite a powerful and effective salve for a skinny, left-out kid from the Pacific Islands.