Corporeality V: Barack Obama and his Intimates
Michele was and remains the guardian of the first ring and she patrols it standing like a sentinel at a memorial at her full height of 5’ 11”. She does so with determination, a sense of control and purpose. She is not at the centre of the rings because for years she opposed Barack’s running for political office as a distraction from his responsibilities to his family and its well-being. But she never undercut his ambitions, just made sure that they interfered as little as possible with the area inside the first inner ring. It was not only her confidence and self-assured qualities, her loyalty and steadfastness in the face of challenges, but her wisdom as well as her intelligence that provided the badly needed anchor for Barack Obama. Her sense and confidence in the meaning and importance of a solid and secure family life that requires a sense of order and regularity has been critical. Everything one reads about their relationship almost suggests that Obama’s most brilliant decision ever was his choice of Michele Robinson, a child of a solid Southside Chicago Christian family with a Princeton education, as his wife.
The other person on the inner circle who is holding Michele’s hand to make the circle around Barack Obama is Valerie Jarrett (née Bowman), a lawyer, civil activist and business woman who served as co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition Project when Obama was first elected. She is currently the Senior Advisor to the President and assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. Her first contact was Michele and was introduced to Barack when he and Michele were engaged and Michele was hired to work for Valerie in the city of Chicago administration beginning in 1991. An African-American daughter of a U.S. doctor posted to Shiraz, Iran where she was born, Valerie is fluent in Farsi and French. She also has aboriginal, Scottish, French and Jewish genes.
In spite of establishment credentials as a member, vice-chair and chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center from 1996 to 2009, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago, a Trustee of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, a board member and chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and a board director of the USG Corporation, she has been attacked as a communist or fellow traveller (her parents and grandparents were activists) by enemies of Barack Obama. She has also been criticized by her allies – Robert Gates, former defense secretary, objected to her presence at foreign security affairs meetings. As well, both David Axelrod (Axe to his friends) and Rahm Emanuel, at one time two of Barack’s closest advisers, had serious disagreements with Valerie. She is still there. They are not.
One might have thought that the communist charges being made against her would have died out with McCarthy, but no such luck. For example, as part of the charges against her father, a pathologist and geneticist, is the accusation that, “Bowman was also a member of the Association of Interns and Medical Students (AIMS), a group that, according to Bowman’s FBI file, engaged in unAmerican activities and “has long been a faithful follower of the Communist Party line.” I was not only a member, but the class representative of AIMS in the late fifties – every student in the class was a member – and I can assure everyone that the organization had nothing to do with any political party, and certainly not the Communist Party, and had no political agenda.
That is the silly part about Valerie Jarrett. The more interesting one relates to the conflicts she had with Obama’s advisors and aides. In every case, Valerie emerged as the winner. The New York Times once reported that, “If you want [Barack Obama] to do something, there are two people [he’s] not going to say no to: Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama.” [I think this probably is true, but when I tried to trace down the accuracy of this quote, I encountered one far right internet site after another and was unable to confirm given the time I was willing to invest, so it may be a construct to suggest that Obama has fallen into the clutches of a controlling witch.] Obama did describe Valerie as family when, in July 2009, he told New York Times reporter Robert Draper, “I trust her completely.” She has variously been dubbed Barack’s spy, his chief sycophant, his consigliere and his night stalker. The New Republic named her “The Obama Whisperer.”
So what went wrong between Valerie and David AxelrodhmOne insight comes from David Axelrod’s recently published memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. Axelrod is credited with getting Obama first elected in 2004 as a U.S. Senator after having lost in his run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000. After Axelrod ran Obama’s campaign for President in 2008, Axe was named a senior advisor in the White House responsible for tracking the impact of any impending decision of the political pulse of Americans. But he only lasted two years. He did not leave because he was eager to get back to Chicago. His memoir indicates that, after he left the White House in January 2011, he was not only depressed and wracked with self-doubt, but Obama cut him off, not even replying to his e-mails. As Axelrod says, “The silence stung.”
What went wrong? Valerie Jarrett! She was first added to the election strategy team in 2008 without discussing the choice with Axelrod and in spite of having no previous campaign experience. David “seethed in silence,” though clearly Valerie was needed as a conduit to Michele, for her perspective as an African-American and as a female in a team dominated by white men. But the problem was not just Jarrett. David Axelrod was critical of his successor, Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s 2012 campaign. Axelrod had fights even with his close friend, Rahm Emanuel, who came on board to run Obama’s office once Barack was first elected. But, given the psychological focus of this and the next blog, we have to turn to David Axelrod’s friend, Maureen Dowd, a star Pulitzer-winning columnist at The New York Times. “No one got under Barack’s skin more than Maureen.” Why? Because of her “penchant for delving into the psyches of her subjects.”
Axelrod did not fall out with Obama because he failed in his role as Obama’s political nostrils (see Richard Wolffe’s The Message: The Reselling of President Obama, nor because he had conflicts with other senior advisers – they all fought with one another – nor over policy choices. Valerie Jarrett is the key to explaining his departure. Valerie was a crucial psychological pillar for Barack Obama. Axelrod not only was not, but he upset the two pillars that protected the inner circle of Obama’s psychological reserve and stability – Maureen and Valerie. His friendship with Maureen Dowd (MoDo), the one person who pierced the skin of this elegant, cool, wholly and happily integrated but disciplined and distant persona, added to the problem, since the first duty of an adviser for Obama was fierce loyalty to the President and serving as a protector of his carefully constructed psyche, a role even assigned to those in the second circle, perhaps even more important than political smarts and public acumen they were required to demonstrate.
However, Axelrod’s most serious weakness had nothing to do with what he did or who he was, but how he became what he was. Like Obama, Axelrod’s beloved father divorced his mother and he too then felt abandoned. But his father subsequently committed suicide. Axe had been doubly abandoned. Further, he himself had been an absent father to his own epileptic daughter, something Obama was determined never to be. Whenever Obama was not on the road, he always had dinner with his family at 6:30 each evening. Though the Axe was wily, he was also personally insecure, shambling and indecisive, a condition Obama himself wallowed in for a short period after his first unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 2000. Axe represented Obama’s rejected psyche. Axe was Obama’s embodied but rejected physical doppelganger, the alter ego that Obama was determined not to be.
MoDo (Maureen Dowd) sensed that weakness in Obama’s psyche. That is really why she aroused the vitriol and enmity of a president usually so completely in control. David Axelrod, “the keeper of the flame for hope and change” revealed Obama’s vulnerability and had to be cast out of his coveted office into the political wilds and the cold winds of Chicago. Axelrod had created Obama as a successful candidate, perhaps because he saw so much of himself, even his aspirational self, in Obama. However, in doing so, David Axelrod had become the sacrificial lamb lest he undermine the strong and secure Obama persona Barack had created.
Then there was Rahm Emanuel, another trusted advisor, but a narcissistic tornado rather than cool, determined and disciplined crusader like Barack Obama. Rahm was not Barack’s alter ego, but a power centre in his own right. His instincts told him that Valerie Jarrett was his only real competitor in the White House. Before he agreed to join Obama’s team and run the White House presidential office, Rahm tried to get Obama to name Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat Obama had just vacated. But Rahm did not succeed in sidelining Valerie. Nor in limiting her role. Emanuel could not even prevent her from having her own personal security detail. Rahm capitulated and took the position as head of the White House staff because the scent of power was so sweet and strong.
But a cold peace governed, disturbed only by Rahm’s temper tantrums, only occasionally with Valerie. But they were symptomatic and governed Rahm’s relationship with Valerie. But not for long. On Valerie’s advice, Obama personally upbraided Rahm for his terrible habit of screaming at subordinates. As a former White House official told the journalist, Noam Schreiber, “In the wild, they [Rahm and Valerie] would have been natural allies. In captivity, they became natural enemies.” After having served Obama’s immediate needs, Rahm ended up using the White House as a stepping stone for his own personal ambitions, returning eventually to Chicago to run and become its mayor.
The bottom line: whenever the second line of defence outside the inner circle threatens the first line in any way, eventually those outside threats are cast aside to be replaced by weaker and more malleable cyphers, like Jack Lew who was himself soon shifted to Treasury Secretary because he was an excellent manager but not a political pro, while Valerie and Barack pursued their program of sweet reasonableness in the face of a Republican Party that has lost its center of gravity altogether.
In addition to the psychological differences between Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, there is also a corresponding radical set of differences in style and substance, even though both are generally congruent on their policy priorities and their view of the role of an activist government reinforced by a magnanimous corporate sector. Barack Obama, as The New Republic described him, is steeped in “boardroom liberalism,” valuing tolerance and diversity as principles and ideals. Justin experienced those values viscerally. Obama, in contrast, applied those values from on high to be dispensed by a Platonic version of a wise elite allied with corporate America. Hillary Clinton, whatever her rivalry with Obama, shares the same anti-populist approach, but without Obama’s ability to tap into the frustrations and insecurity of Americans. Both are very different than the ersatz populist Bernie Sanders, characterized by his desire to institutionalize magnanimity through tax policies. Sanders is recognized for his Herculean effort at mobilizing public opinion against the deeply entrenched interests and perks of corporate America. Barack and Hillary are not.
Hence, Obama readily abandoned a single payer health system in the name of realpolitik, abandoned the protection of those whose ownership of homes had sunk below sea level when his brilliant economic team was rescuing Wall Street and the slip American automobile manufacturers. Barack Obama was capable of making an off-the-cuff, that Bernie could not make. After bowling a feeble 37 after seven frames in his unsuccessful effort to connect with working-class Pennsylvania voters living in the rust belt of America with neither jobs nor prospects of jobs, Obama remarked of those voters that in their bitterness, they cling to their “guns or religion” to deal with their frustrations.
Tomorrow I will begin to explicate the frustrations he suffers in high office that go far beyond the fact that the Republicans control both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
With the help of Alex Zisman
Tomorrow: Obama as Commander-in-Chief – Theoretical Background