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We still can't read Obama

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Shakespeare excels in quotability. He encapsulates marvellously. So much of what he wrote has the ring of wisdom, the neat finish of a proverb. Though I have not made the attempt, I believe it is very possible to do a sketch of almost any leader or politician simply by carving out the right "quotations" from Shakespeare.

Barack Obama is easy. He is (think cable shows, editorialists, lowly commentators) "the observed of all observers." Further, he is "the glass of fashion and the mould of form," though Michelle (she of the buff biceps) might pose as competition. And what better prose cameo do we have for him as he strides into his first term than "the expectancy and rose of the fair state."

Yet, even with Shakespeare at our beck, I wonder if we can find the phrase or formula that pierces the surface of Mr. Obama to the essence of the man. It's easy to find a tagline for the Obama phenomenon, a caption for one or other moment in his procession through the world's media. But when we watch or listen to Mr. Obama, do we catch the accents of the real man? Has there been some moment illuminated by a flash of genuine revelation, marked by a man speaking from the deepest part of himself? The inauguration? On Jay Leno? In Europe this week?

He speaks on so many things and - when prepared - is apt to speak very elegantly, sometimes movingly about each of them. But where is the vibration of the core conviction? What are the challenges or ideas stamped with the "fierce urgency" of his instinctive passion or commitment?

With George Bush, this was not a question. After the attack on the towers, Mr. Bush had one idea: keep his country and its citizens safe from another attack. Instinctive patriotism was his uncluttered core.

Mr. Obama is far more problematic - and not because Mr. Bush was the one-dimensional simpleton/puppet that malice and caricature have portrayed him, and Mr. Obama the New Age charismatic, MTV renaissance man his idolizers like to believe he is. With Mr. Obama, the difficulty is that every performance seems like every other one. He may be talking about bailing out the auto companies, extending a welcoming word to the Muslim world or arguing for a new American health-care regime. His emotional register on all these topics is the same.

His set speeches have a peculiar detached quality about them, a touch of the professional actor's proud ability to find all the right tones and gestures regardless of the quality or content of a given script. They don't so much convince as impress. They beguile rather than reveal. They are dazzlingly - it's almost a paradox - competent.

Of the many speeches Mr. Obama has made, which one has said to you this is him? This is the irreducible, essential Barack Obama - this is why he's in politics. You will find it a frustrating challenge: His statements blur into one another, no one speech distinguished by the authentic charge of words spoken from the deepest part of himself.

There was one moment when the voice of the man overwhelmed the performance of the orator. It came after the first flare-up of the noxious pastor Jeremiah Wright when Mr. Obama, with real pathos, said during his speech on race that he could no more disown Mr. Wright (for all his flaws) than he could disown his own grandmother. Now that had real charge.

He was saying that certain relationships have such depth for him that not even a political crisis could force him to abrogate them. There we had a measurement, a take on the character of this amazing communicator. (Yes, he later did "disown" Mr. Wright, but Mr. Wright had viciously upped the ante by then. I am not accusing Mr. Obama of hypocrisy here.)

But I have not heard that tone since, the core note of the authentic Barack Obama. What are the most important issues for Mr. Obama? What are the cornerstone beliefs of this new President? What does he have "within which passes show"? He glides from one part of his mammoth agenda to the other, smooth, cool and charming all the way. But his effortless equanimity poses the question: If it were another agenda, a contrary agenda even, would he glide equally smooth, cool and charming over it? I don't think we know. He doesn't offer any real affective clues.

What summons the central energies of this new President? What ideas prevail in his view of himself and the world? It's an interesting question to be asking in the middle of a devastating financial collapse and with some of the world's great rogue states pressing for nuclear capacity. After all the speeches he has given, as campaigner and as President, we still do not have a grounded reading of the man in the most powerful office on an anxious planet.

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