This March I was in Chicago visiting a friend whose aunt works in city government and talk, unsurprisingly, turned to Barack Obama. The aunt is directly connected through her work to one of Obama’s top advisors, Valerie Jarrett. She remembers Jarrett as influential partly because of her excellent connections in the upper class African-American community of Chicago, of which Obama was a part. “They went to symphonies, ballgames,” and—most importantly—helped each other in their careers. In the early 1990s, perhaps the most well-known member of this social set was John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Capital Investment. Today, his ex-wife, Desiree Rogers, is the Obamas’ social secretary.
Hearing about these connections, it is striking to think that, until four years ago, Obama was hardly the group’s most prominent member. This, as with so much else about our president’s extraordinary career arc, begs the question—how did he do it? Skeptics see a young, able state senator who, just as he did at the “Harvard Law Review” where he became Editor in Chief, stayed relatively silent and played his cards right, and by virtue of not making enemies made friends and eventually supporters. To optimists, Obama is a modern-day Lincoln, the consummate man from nowhere with unparalleled and heretofore-unrecognized gifts.
The truth, as so often happens, is probably somewhere in between. Obama possesses a rare combination of gifts, of this there can be no doubt. He is intelligent, a clear thinker and, to many, an inspiring writer and speaker. He also has an admirably circumspect nature, in marked contrast to his immediate predecessor. One does not get a sense, however, that Obama is necessarily inspired by ideas themselves, nor that he thinks about them broadly, deeply, or passionately. His intellect seems penetrating but narrow, filled with clarity but perhaps lacking in breadth. As for his language, the sentiments, and support it inspires are impressive, yes, but too often Obama’s rhetoric seems lofty, disconnected in crucial ways from the thoughts he expresses. His spare delivery style is odd too, clashing paradoxically with his often sentimental language.
Finally, there is his famous detachment, the underside of which is a seeming disconnectedness that has been present these first few months of his presidency. When liberal commentators are remarking that Obama has yet to imprint his personality on the age, that he needs to step forward and inspire the country in these difficult times, you know something is lacking. I do not mention this to detract from his gifts, merely to qualify that, at the moment at least, the view of Obama as Lincolnian is far from universally secure.
You can, however, be an extraordinary individual without being Abraham Lincoln, and in what he has achieved, Obama is clearly extraordinary. It is also true that greatness in the political arena rarely comes from a single trait or even a host of traits, because there are simply too many facets of character that are put into play. What is necessary is strength of personality as a whole, a combination of traits and talents molded together by thoughtful individuals to render their better qualities more visible more often than their lesser ones. Because of the sheer weight of the job description and the tough road to the Oval Office, most presidents have this overall strength. People often identify it with the person’s single most obvious characteristic, the one which seems to tie the rest together. Richard Nixon had his unstoppable drive, Gerald Ford his quiet decency, and Bill Clinton his emotive empathy.
In this vein, I think that Obama’s overarching trait which unites his other admirable, but not remarkable skills, is his discipline. Discipline is quiet and unromantic, but it is real and its effects—or rather the consequences of lacking discipline—are on display almost constantly in political life. The most obvious, and perhaps appropriate example, is Chicago’s other current celebrity politician, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who after being unceremoniously booted from office in February was indicted two weeks ago on charges of trying to sell Obama’s vacated senate seat to the highest bidder.
Both men’s career paths are surprisingly similar. They both had connections in Chicago, though Blagojevich’s were better—his father-in-law and patron was powerful Chicago alderman Richard Mell—and both were mentioned as possible presidential contenders as early as 2004. I remember the only time in my life when I saw Barack Obama up close, in 2005 at the dedication of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Then-Governor Blagojevich was there too, and both men spoke briefly at the ceremonies. A friend turned to me and said, “Ten to one, they’ll both be running for president in four years.”
But today, Blagojevich is heading toward jail and Obama is in the White House. It is interesting to reflect on what inner forces drove each man to his current position. Blagojevich was a decent-looking, relatively charming, and brashly confident man. But he lacked discipline in the most meaningful sense; he could not discipline himself to focus on the tasks at hand. First he was a youthful representative, then a still-young governor with a populist flair, then people began talking about him as a possible presidential contender and suddenly he started thinking of himself that way. He was governing the fifth largest state by population in the union but he was not focused on it. He was focused on the future, or rather the prospect of the future. By 2007 he had alienated the Democratic majority in the State Legislature, his father-in-law patron, and 87 percent of voters, making him the least popular governor in the nation. He had also run his state into unprecedented levels of debt.
Meanwhile, Obama was growing steadily larger on the national stage and keeping his cool. Decisions came and went—whether or not to run for president, how to handle Hillary Clinton, how to respond to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—and he tackled them methodically, persevering to win the presidency. My favorite moment of the inauguration was when Obama stumbled over the inaugural oath out of eagerness. My immediate thought was: He’s stunned that he actually made it here. But he had made it, and for a simple reason: he never took his eye off the ball.
I think it is worth noting that, on an abstract level, the story of the two Chicago politicians is a very American tableau. A key conception since our country’s founding, carried down in diluted form to the present, is that with effort the individual can achieve anything—the American Dream. Talk matters less than action. Blagojevich talked, and he talked well, but he had stars in his eyes. Obama was instead resolutely level-headed, and each man fared accordingly. In an age of recession, after the presidency of a man haunted by the specter of undeserved success, it feels good to look at Barack Obama and be able to say, that is what it takes to become the president.