Barack Obama is perhaps the least known figure ever to enter the White House. A set of very unusual circumstances, including an economic nose-dive just a few weeks before the election, put him there. Only now, almost two years into his presidency, Americans are starting to ask: who is Barack Obama? This was the title of a recent column in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen. The question was not about Obama's policies; everyone knows about those. Rather, it was one of Obama's underlying ideology. What motivates this man?
A picture of Barack Obama Sr in his Kenyan home (GETTY IMAGES)
Europeans are routinely given a pre-packaged portrait of Obama: he is an historic figure, the first African-American president; he is the embodiment of multiracialism and multiculturalism; he is a cosmopolitan, in refreshing contrast to his parochial predecessor; and he looks and speaks the way that many in the world think an American president ought to look and speak. Consequently, Obama's critics are often dismissed in Europe as a bunch of right-wing fanatics, otherwise known as the Tea Party movement.
So goes the usual propaganda. It was pretty much the same propaganda that helped Obama win. But now Americans have had the opportunity to see what Obama is all about and most of them don't like it. Obama's popularity has plummeted. Quite apart from the insatiable right-wing, many moderates and independents who voted for Obama are now suffering buyer's remorse.
Even some of Obama's supporters profess to being mystified by what moves the man. Appearing on a TV show, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas said he found himself curiously repelled by a president with whose ideas he generally agreed. Thomas called Obama "slightly creepy" and "deeply manipulative". He suggested that there was something fake and unreal about Obama's public persona.
Theories about Obama abound. On the Left, he is sometimes portrayed as a champion of the civil rights movement, a kind of latter-day Martin Luther King. On the Right, Obama is often described as a closet Muslim or more often as a kind of socialist. Neither of these quite works. Obama has never sat at a segregated lunch counter. In a sense, he's not even African-American. In the US, this means you are descended from slaves. Obama's father was an educated immigrant from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from Kansas. Obama's formative experience, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya, seems very remote from that of Martin Luther King.
There is no evidence that Obama is a Muslim. His father Barack Obama Sr was raised as a Muslim, the consequence of his grand-father Onyango Obama converting to Islam. His stepfather Lolo Soetoro was also raised in the Islamic faith. But neither man practised Islam, and Obama writes that his father treated Islam with the same contempt he reserved for African witch doctors. Obama studied Islam in Indonesia, where he lived for four years, but he also studied Catholicism and Buddhism and he seems to have emerged with no firm religious convictions at all.
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