Maureen Dowd / Superhero dreams: President Obama may still be in search of his true self

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WASHINGTON -- On Friday night, the nation's capital was under a tornado watch. And that was the best thing that happened to the White House all week.

As the president was being slapped by Mitt Romney for being too weak on national security, he was being rapped by a New York Times editorial for being too aggressive on national security.

A Times article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane revealed that the liberal law professor who campaigned against torture and the Iraq War now personally makes the final decisions on the "kill list," targets for drone strikes. "A unilateral campaign of death is untenable," the editorial asserted.

On Thursday, Bill Clinton once more telegraphed that he considers President Barack Obama a lightweight who should not have bested his wife. Bluntly contradicting the Obama campaign theme that Mr. Romney is a heartless corporate raider, Mr. Clinton told CNN that the Republican's record at Bain was "sterling."

Covering a humorous W. at the unveiling of his portrait, the White House press actually seemed nostalgic for the president who bollixed up Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina and the economy -- a sure sign that the Obama magic is flagging.

On Friday, an ugly job market report led to the stock market's worst day of the year. As the recovery flat-lined, the president conceded to a crowd at a Honeywell factory in Golden Valley, Minn., that "our economy is still facing some serious headwinds" and getting sucked further into Europe's sinkhole. In depressing imagery for the start of the summer campaign, cable channels carried the red Dow arrow pointing down while Mr. Obama spoke; the Dow wiped out all of its 2012 gains.

The president who started off with such dazzle now seems incapable of stimulating either the economy or voters. His campaign is offering Obama 2012 car magnets for a donation of $10; cat collars reading "I Meow for Michelle" for $12; an Obama grill spatula for $40, and discounted hoodies and T-shirts. How the mighty have fallen.

Once glowing, his press is now burning. "To a very real degree, 2008's candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012's candidate of fear," John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine, noting that because Mr. Obama feels he can't run on his record, his campaign will resort to nuking Mr. Romney.

In his new book, "A Nation of Wusses," Democrat Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, wonders how "the best communicator in campaign history" lost his touch.

The legendary speaker who drew campaign crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a dispirited nation ended up nonchalantly delegating to a pork-happy Congress, disdaining the bully pulpit, neglecting to do any LBJ-style grunt work with Congress and the American public and ceding control of his narrative. As president, Mr. Obama has never felt the need to explain or sell his signature pieces of legislation -- the stimulus and health care bills -- or stanch the flow of false information from the other side.

"The administration lost the communications war with disastrous consequences that played out on Election Day 2010," Mr. Rendell writes, and Mr. Obama never got credit for the two pieces of legislation where he reached for greatness.

The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fundraiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he's just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism.

If he wins the election, "the fever may break," he said. "My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again."

In his new biography, "Barack Obama: The Story," David Maraniss writes that a roommate of the young Obama compared him to Walker Percy's protagonist in "The Moviegoer": an observer of his life, one step removed.

Mr. Obama's boss at his community organizing job in Chicago, Jerry Kellman, observed: "He was not unwilling to take risks, but was just this strange combination of someone who would have to weigh everything to death, and then take a dramatic risk at the end. He was reluctant to do confrontation, to push the other side because it might blow up -- and it might. But one thing Alinsky did understand was that within reason, once something blows up, to a certain degree it doesn't hurt, it helps."

Mr. Maraniss' book depicts Mr. Obama on an intense odyssey of self-discovery, moving toward defining himself less as a half-white man with white girlfriends than as a black man who wanted to be part of a black community.

His New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, told Mr. Maraniss that Mr. Obama confessed to her that "he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body." When she predicted that his future might be with a black woman -- "That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!" she wrote in her journal -- he told her "he doubted there were any black women he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, 'No, she is out there.' "

He wanted to get out of the corporate world he found so distasteful -- he described himself as "a spy behind enemy lines" -- and reimagine himself as a politician.

On CNBC on Friday, Mr. Romney complained that Mr. Obama has "been more focused on his perspective of his historic legislative achievements than he has been focused on getting people back to work."

A president focused on historic achievements? Imagine that. But in his lame way, Mr. Romney got at Mr. Obama's problem: The Moviegoer prefers to float above, at a reserve, in grandiose mists.

As Mr. Maraniss recounts, Mr. Obama said he liked reading Hemingway because of Papa's "integrity of grasping for those times, those visions, that are ones of true magnificence and profundity."

Ms. Cook told Mr. Maraniss that she thought Mr. Obama's desire to "play out a superhero life" was "a very strong archetype in his personality."

But superheroes and mythic figures must boldly lead. Mr. Obama's caution -- ingrained from a life of being deserted by his father and sometimes his mother, and of being, as he wrote to another girlfriend, "caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me" -- has restrained him at times. In some ways, he's still finding himself, too absorbed to see what's not working. But the White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing.

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times. First Published June 4, 2012 12:00 AM


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