Who Is Obama?

Matt, writing on yesterday's "Race and Politics in America: Where Are We in 2008?" panel here at Aspen:

Continuing with my Shelby Steele blogging, he went into what I thought was a really unfair attack on Barack Obama, drawing an invidious comparison between Obama and John McCain and Hillary Clinton on the grounds that we don't really know who he is. Instead, says Steele, Obama is running on a vague sense that he's a talented politician and a black guy. At first I thought he was going to take this in an unverifiably airy direction, but then he specifically said of McCain that if he's elected "we know what road that guy’s going to go down" whereas we don't know the same for Obama.

Now of course it's possible -- likely, even -- that many Americans don't know what road Obama would go down as president. But he's unveiled a fairly detailed policy record, and assembled a fairly consistent record in public life. It's John McCain, by contrast, who was against the Bush tax cuts before he was against them it's McCain who sponsored an immigration reform bill and then said he would have written against it. It's McCain who wants credit for tackling climate change but opposes all legislation aimed at curbing carbon emissions. It's McCain who's trying to run on an appealing biography while leaving cloudy impressions of his policy agenda.

I take his point, but if Steele had stuck to what Matt terms the "unverifiably airy" side of things - to Obama's personality instead of his policies - I would have taken his point as well. It's true that Obama's policy positions have been no more fungible than McCain's (though no less fungible as well, as evidenced by his recent maneuverings), and in many respects they've been considerably more detailed. But there remains, I think, a striking opacity to Obama - the deep structures that inform his thinking aren't out in the open for anyone to see, the way they are with McCain, and in certain ways I feel like I know less about Obama the man than I did when he had just started running for President. This has been reflected across his life and political career: I don't agree with the entire Steve Sailer take on Obama, but Sailer is on to something when he writes that the Democratic nominee seems to have "spent his life trying on different personalities," while his core has remained something of a mystery - perhaps even to himself.

Overall, this quality has been an asset to Obama as a national politician, since it allows his supporters to read their own biases and convictions into his candidacy: You can vote for him because you think he's the left-wing Reagan or because you think he's a cool centrist with a Burkean temperament; you can rally around him because he embodies African-American advancement or because he transcends racial categories entirely; etc. And it may be an asset to him as President as well: Dwight Eisenhower, one of our greatest twentieth-century chief executives, was also one of our most mysterious and opaque. But as someone who always wants to know more, rather than less, about people running for President, even (or especially) when the "more" goes to personality rather than policy, I wish I had a slightly better sense of what makes Obama tick.