The Ink Blot President

The record suggests that the President has been reasonably consistent in the positions he staked out during his election campaign and his presidency.  But we all seem to have trouble seeing it.  Why?

As Frank Rich pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times, he is seen as “either an overintellectual, professorial wuss or a ruthless Chicago machine pol rivaling the original Boss Daley. He is either a socialist redistributing wealth to the undeserving poor or a tool of Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs elite. He is a terrorist-coddling, A.C.L.U.-tilting lawyer or a closet Cheneyite upholding the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s end run on the Constitution. He is a lightweight celebrity who’s clueless without a teleprompter or a Machiavellian mastermind who has ingeniously forged his Hawaiian birth certificate, covered up his ties to Islamic radicals and bamboozled the entire mainstream press. He is the reincarnation of J.F.K., L.B.J., F.D.R., Reagan, Hitler, Stalin, Adlai Stevenson or Nelson Mandela.”  (See, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Obama!”)

To be sure, all public figures are vulnerable to this Rorschach effect, unless they become caricatures of themselves.  Moreover, Obama is less an ideologue than a pragmatist, a “shape-shifter.”  But this extreme degree of variability calls for explanation.

The underlying psychological principle here is that we see by categories.  The mind takes the raw sense data it gets and does its best to fit into preexisting slots, a capacity that was a huge advantage in our evolutionary struggle to respond rapidly to events.  If we had to consciously consider everything we experienced and decide how to respond, no doubt, we would not have made it as a species.

But Obama confounds our established categories.  For one thing, he is black.  That, in itself, links to a host of categories for all of us, along with a host of divergent assumptions.  Then, he is our first black president, and we don’t have much experience with that category in our minds, much less reconciling the categories of blackness with those for presidential.

Moreover, his arrival on the political stage was meteoric.  We really didn’t have much of a chance to get to know him and figure our where in our minds he belonged.  In 2004, he gave an inspiring talk to the Democratic National Convention.  Four years later, he became its candidate for President.  As a junior senator from Illinois, he did not have much opportunity to become known to us all.

So our minds are still struggling to put together what we know about him.  The task would be hard enough in the best of circumstances but, in this tumultuous environment, charged with conflicting hopes and fears, distracted by the noise of accusations and counter accusations in the media, it may take a long time to establish the new categories we need to make sense of him.

Clearly we won’t all agree on what they are, but they are sure to be less contradictory and bewildering than they seem now.