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The Elusive President

A Canadian Looks at Obama

by RICK SALUTIN

Stephen Harper, along with the security legions, got a discomfited look on his face when Barack Obama asked if they could step outside to wave to the crowd yesterday after arriving on Parliament Hill. Oh no, he seemed to fret. I don’t want it to end this way: taking a bullet for the big-spending liberal. On the other hand, it’s his normal expression.
But Barack Obama makes many people edgy, including some on the left, where he’s supposed to be. Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star: “He is not God. The best thing … is that he’s not George W. Bush.” Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch: “There’s always something cloudy about Obama, just when I’ve almost persuaded myself to like the guy.” That includes me.

He eludes easy analysis. I’ve decided that’s because his life and experience are so different from most public figures, to whom we have our responses ready. We know he’s different because of his book, Dreams from My Father, on his life till about 30. Anyone who read it 15 years ago would have thought: No chance he’s planning to run for office. From it, we learn not just the unusual things he did but the unusual ways he processed them.

When his mother took him to a hospital for stitches in Indonesia, she seemed to fear “her child’s life might slip away when she wasn’t looking, that everyone around her would be too busy trying to survive to notice.” When he worked for a corporate consulting firm: “Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office.” Recently, speaking of Canadian health care – seen as too radical in the U.S. – he said: “When I drive through Toronto, it doesn’t look like a bunch of Maoists.” Hmm. He may not be a leftist, but he seems to know some.

His community organizing in Chicago centered on shuttered factories. That’s the subtext when he talks to Stephen Harper about protectionism. Stephen read up on it in Fraser Institute publications, and Barack tried to save jobs in dying neighborhoods: “Men and women who smoked a lot and didn’t watch their weight … drove late-model cars from Detroit and ate at Red Lobster on special occasions.” He sat at kitchen tables and talked to them about their lives and ideas. He organized meetings in church halls when almost no one came and the odd soul wandered in to ask where the bingo was. Occasionally, he saw “what every organizer dreamed about – someone with untapped talent … excited by the idea of a public life, eager to learn.”

At the Republican convention, Sarah Palin sneered that community organizers sound like small-town mayors without the responsibility. Everyone hee-hawed. But he found “there was always a community there if you dug deep enough … there was poetry as well.”

When he looks around his cabinet table, he will see no one with that kind of experience. He has been in worlds they are clueless about.
It isn’t your average presidential CV, and the discomfort comes from not knowing how it will play out with the guy as president. He has what I think of as the Bob White look: I’m already so far ahead of anything I could have expected that I can’t not feel good. Compare that to the Al Gore look: No matter what happens, the most I can ever do is meet expectations.

Yet, it’s also very primitive. Imagine Barack Obama waking up yesterday. Already, for hours, thousands have been astir, focused on his day, making his breakfast, welding manhole covers shut in Ottawa etc. It dwarfs the Roman imperial cult. He likes to talk about teachable moments, but what’s teachable about this hubbub? It’s so undemocratic, so uncommunity organizing. It isn’t far from the world of Russian peasants who thought: If only the czar knew, he’d fix everything. The fact that, in the Obama case, he may be the only one at that cabinet table who would fix it, makes the primitiveness even more conspicuous.

RICK SALUTIN is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He’s writes a regular column in the Globe and Mail and teaches a course on Canadian media at the University of Toronto.