Renshon's article is a penetrating, rigorous peace of research, and he's fair in analyzing both Obama and John McCain, laying out the implications of both candidates' psychological profiles for the American presidency during the next fours years. Naturally, I'm interested in Barack Obama, not only because I think he's far outside the mainstream of society, but also because he's such a favorite to win on Tuesday.
The introduction to Renshon's discussion of Obama is startling in its demonstration of the Democratic nominee's unbridled ambition:
To call Barack Obama's political rise meteoric may be the true definition of understatement. Born in 1961 into a racially mixed family, he spent his early life in Indonesia and Hawaii and graduated from Columbia University in 1983. He worked in New York for four years, first for a business consulting firm and then for a public interest research group. He then moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer for three years before entering Harvard Law School in 1988. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review in his first year, and as its president in his second year at the age of 28. He graduated in 1991 and then returned to Chicago where, in 1993, he joined the firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland at the age of 32. In 1994, at the age of 33 his book, Dreams of My Father, was published. In 1996, he won election to the Illinois State Senate and served there from 1996 to 2004, ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2002 and lost, then ran successfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004. He announced his candidacy for the presidency in February 2007 at the age of 41. The Senator has been on a very fast track indeed.A little further down in the text, Renshon cites Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's brother, who in an interview in 1989 relayed that Barack Obama stated early-on, and surprisingly, that he wanted to run for the presidency.
Readers should know that I read Renshon's, High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition, during Bill Clinton's impeachment, and I was really struck then by the single most powerful variable in Clinton's self-destruction: blinding ambition. We cannot know what will happen in an Obama administration, but Renshon's discussion of Obama's drive reminds me not only of Bill Clinton's, but of Richard Nixon's as well.
Renshon provides additional background information on Obama's upbringing and training, etc., but I found his discussion of Obama's temperament rather troubling:
Calm, tempered, cool, deliberative, detached, laid-back, and serious are all terms that have been used to describe Obama by people who have known him at various periods in his life....This passage reveals (1) that much of Obama's explicit message of pragmatism and post-partisanship is mostly a shrewdly calculated political choreography geared to winning the office of the presidency (which doesn't lend much credibility to the "change" mantra we've heard all year). But (2) the latter part of the quote is particularly informative, in that it squares with the record of Obama's positions on the Iraq war: As Peter Wehner has detailed to devastating effect, Obama supported sending more troops when the war was going badly - and while the Bush administration's policy was in disarray - but then opposed the surge of troops in 2007, precisely when the administration had changed course strategically, and when security in Iraq had improved to the point that the American goal of leaving behind a stable and victorious nation came into focus.
Obama's calm external demeanor leads to the question of what he does with the normal passions that animate people. I raise this point not to suggest that buried underneath that calm exterior is a seething cauldron of intense emotions, but to simply ask the question as it has been stated. One hint of an answer is that Obama's seemingly detached equanimity does not mean that he is incapable of tough, even harsh attacks on others. Of Hillary Clinton he said that she “says and does whatever it takes to win the next election.”
Toward Republicans, he has been even harsher. In a 1995 interview speaking of the success of Christian conservatives in building communities he said, “It's always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia.” Eight years later, in speaking of Republicans more generally, he said, “What I'm certain about is that people are disenchanted with a highly ideological Republican Party that believes tax cuts are the answer to every problem, and lack of regulation and oversight is always going to generate economic growth, and unilateral intervention around the world is the best approach to foreign policy”....
Another question that arises with regard to Obama's stylistic equanimity is its impact on his decision making and judgment. Obama has repeatedly touted the high quality of his judgment and rests that case on what he sees as his prescient opposition to the war; “on the most important foreign policy issue of a generation, I got it right and others did not.” It is somewhat unclear, however, just how strategically accurate the basis of his opposition was. He argued that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the United States or its neighbors, but what about a gathering threat? His opposition was premised on the view that Saddam could be contained; others made strong arguments that containment was failing. That argument rests on plausible analysis that either side could marshal, not on the superior judgment of Obama's side of the debate.
Obama also framed his criticism of the war with direct personal attacks on members of the administration and their motives. “I am opposed to the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income—to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.” So is the basis of his good judgment prescient geo-strategic analysis or a progressive's animus toward a conservative agenda?
Thus, while Barack Obama's cool temperament may indeed serve him well as a political asset, his deliberate style and calm detachment serve to mask a much larger decision-making liability that could put national security at risk.
Renshon continues next with a discussion of Obama's substantive political positions and objective ideological orientation. Obama is something of an ideological chameleon (he's an accomplished flip-flopper on the issues), and while his bedrock positions are found to the far left of the political spectrum, his willingness to compromise his positions for rank political interest elicits the conundrum of not so much "where's the beef?" but what the heck does he stand for?, to borrow from Renshon's formulation.
Probably the most problematic issue for Barack Obama is the Olympus-level expectations he's set and the unlikeliness that he'll be able to meet them.
Among the most important and obvious skills that sustain Obama's success and ambition is his ability to deliver speeches that his adherents view as soaring and inspiring. His speech on race relations, for example, was hailed, even exalted. “One for the history books,” “brilliant,” and “unequivocal and healing” are some of the accolades heaped upon it. This praise reflects the extraordinary rhetorical skill and power that Obama can bring to bear.This is an extremely fascinating passage, because the implications of this discussion not only confirm many of the most common criticisms of "The One" from the blogosphere, but because Obama's expectations are so lofty that the actual job of governing will be tremendously complicated by the impossible rhetoric.
There can be no doubt about the power of Obama's oratory to inspire his followers. His rhetorical skills have been noted and praised by persons from both sides of the political aisle, although there are some dissents. Some have pointed out that his charisma has the trappings of a “cult of personality.” Others, both on the left and the right, have pointed to the gap between “inspiration and substance.”94 Some have wondered whether eloquence is “overrated”....
Obama has the unique ability to offer doctrinaire liberal positions in a way that avoids the stridency of many recent Democratic candidates....
If elected, Obama will be among the youngest presidents ever to serve in that office. His resume will also be among the thinnest of those who have served. This being the case it is not easy to reconcile the record that does exist, as the most liberal Senator in that chamber in 2007, with the primary rhetorical emphasis of his campaign, which is pragmatic but transformational change. Even those last two terms seem contradictory, but it is in the gap between Obama's messianic rhetoric and his moderate, pragmatic political persona that some real presidential leadership contradictions come plainly into view.
Obama has made wide use of soaring rhetoric often of apocryphal and biblical dimensions. Building to the rhetorical climax in the speech in which he claimed victory in his quest for the Democratic Party's nomination, he said,I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal...Close your eyes and you can easily imagine Obama as a new world prophet forecasting a spiritual and political awakening. Indeed that is how many of his adherents view him and herein is an enormous problem for him, should he gain the presidency [bold emphasis added].
If the Democrats regain and expand their congressional majority - particularly with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate - there will be little in the way of structural impediments to prevent the passage of landmark legislation firmly in the tradition of Great Society liberalism and beyond. Such a development will pacify the Democratic Party's radical base, but it will alienate GOP partisans who will be both marginalized and disabused of Obama's high-minded calls to bipartisanship.
In other words, for personal and political reasons, a sweeping Democratic victory will essentially nullify Obama's two-year campaign of post-partisan transformation. By seeking to transcend national divisions, an Obama presidency would risk alienating core constituencies who feel desperately aggrieved and damaged by eight years of Republican rule. But by repudiating his own claims to be a healer and uniter, Obama will radicalize the other side by confirming the expectations conservatives have had all along for a Democratic candidate baptized in the left's revolution of rights and redistribution of the post-1960s era.