The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston was an astonishing piece of oratory. It was also a bit of sleight of hand.

Then a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Obama wove his personal ancestry and biography — black and white, Kenya and Kansas, Hawaii and Harvard — into the American story of opportunity, multiplicity and solidarity. Not red vs. blue, but united. Out of many, one. David Axelrod calls the address a love letter to America. “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” Obama declared, his most poignant line of the night.

.. Two words in that sentence would matter most.

.. My story. This was a presidency preoccupied with Obama’s exceptionalism as much as with America’s.

.. So much so, in fact, that when President-elect Obama endured criticism for recycling Clinton-era officials into top posts, he argued that it didn’t matter, that he was enough. “I was never of the belief that the way you bring about change is to not hire anybody who knows how things work, and to start from scratch and completely reinvent the wheel,” Obama saidto The Washington Post in January 2009. “I’m the one who brings change. It is my vision. It is my agenda.”

.. As a candidate, Obama explained the logic. “I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country,” Obama told journalist James Traub in 2007. “And they’d be right.”

.. “I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words — ‘to form a more perfect union.’ I’ve studied the Constitution as a student, I’ve taught it as a teacher, I’ve been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as commander in chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.”

.. with a “don’t worry, it’s me” approach to national-security powers. When the New York Times described the president’s personal role in selecting terrorists (including a U.S. citizen) to target for attack, for example, it noted how “the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.”

.. After reassuring Americans on the extent of NSA oversight, he offered some unusual comfort. “I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the . . . next 31/2 years, and after that, I will be a private citizen,” Obama said. “And I suspect that, on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.”

.. So because Obama worries about his own future privacy, we should trust that he would never violate ours?

.. Obama, evocatively yet unmistakably, brought the discussion back to himself again. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” the president remarked.

.. “The White House did little to dispel the notion that Obama came first, over and above the party.”

.. “I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election,” he urged a Congressional Black Caucus gathering.

.. The man soon supplanting Obama in the Oval Office is even more enamored with his own story and more dismissive of his own party, and promises to remake the nation on the strength of his personality. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump asserted at the Republican National Convention, “which is why I alone can fix it.” It is a more concentrated and insidious iteration of the personalized presidency.

.. A president who used his story in an attempt to uplift and empower is giving way to a leader for whom the office seems an exercise in personal brand extension.

.. “The spirit of national conciliation was more than the rhetorical pixie dust of Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention ..

..  “It was also an elemental component of his self-conception, his sense that he was uniquely suited to transcend ideology and the grubby battles of the day.

Richard Rohr: What Keeps Everything from Belonging?

Ken Wilber suggests that religion has two very important and different functions to support human development. First, religion creates meaning for the separate self. [2] It offers myths and rituals that help us make sense of and endure what Shakespeare would call “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” You need to first feel special and chosen to launch beyond yourself. This feels like a paradox, but it really isn’t. It is the nature of all growth.

.. Many people stop at this first stage of fortifying the separate self. Being part of a superior group, ethnicity, or class, and having correct religious or moral beliefs often becomes a cover for remaining basically selfish and narcissistic. Such folks end up reenacting the first half of life over and over again, perpetuating exclusion and violence to protect their small field of self.

.. Some kind of law, structure, loyalty, and a sense of chosenness (very old fashioned virtues) are usually necessary to create a strong ego “container” and this is the appropriate task of “the first half of life.”

.. Good parents do everything they can to validate and affirm their child’s specialness, which ideally gives children the dignity and self-confidence to move beyond the need for outer sources of belonging and identity.

.. Unfortunately, many people never move beyond the need for more infilling and never get to the outpouring which should be the natural result of a healthy ego. Basically, they never get to love. As long as they remain in this self-enclosed and self-referential position, all “otherness” is a threat to their specialness. They will need to prove and make sure that others do not belong, so they can hold center stage. They spend their whole life protecting their boundaries, which isn’t much of a life. The container becomes the substitute for the contents.