Obama on His Parents' Influence

Late last Thursday afternoon, before announcing who will join him in the fall campaign against John McCain, Barack Obama spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham about fathers and sons, character and ambition—and how he will not hesitate to fight hard in the remaining weeks of the race. Edited excerpts:

MEACHAM: You and Senator McCain fit into very interesting categories of presidential history. There is either a really strong father in the picture—Adams, Kennedy, Bush—or there is virtually none at all—Jackson, Hayes, Clinton. Why do you think men with strong mothers and absent fathers tend to do so well in politics?
It's an interesting question, and I've always got to be careful about pop psychology. [But] I offered one suggestion in something I wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," and this is not original to me: "A man's either trying to live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes." I think to put yourself through what is a pretty rigorous process of running for president, you've got to have learned to set up some pretty high expectations for yourself—something's got to be driving you—and in my case if you have somebody that is absent, maybe you feel like you've got something to prove when you're young, and that pattern sets itself up over time. But also because, again in my case, the stories I heard about my father painted him as larger than life, which also meant that I felt I had something to live up to. You could argue that if you're too well adjusted, you don't end up running for president. So if the pattern sets in pretty early on where you're pushing your comfort level, it probably has to do with those very early influences, and that can come from either the absence or the presence of a father who ends up motivating you in some way.

As you know, the conventional wisdom of the hour is that you may be too soft to fight this contest with the vigor that it may require. But for what it's worth, I think a careful reading of your life, even a cursory one, suggests the opposite. I just don't think you get to where you're sitting when you're 47 years old by being soft.
The nice thing about it is that at least people tend to underestimate me, which isn't a bad thing. I think [my strength] actually comes, in my case, from the absence of a father. At some level I had to raise myself. My mother obviously was the dominant influence in my life, and I had a stepfather and a grandfather who both participated in raising me and were good men who did good things for me. But if I think about how I have been able to navigate some pretty tricky situations in my life, it has to do with the fact that I had to learn to trust my own judgment; I had to learn to fight for what I wanted. I actually think that maybe having an absent father meant also that you have a different relationship with your mother, and because you have to grow up faster, you feel like maybe you have to protect them a little bit more, so that maybe carries over into how you approach the world generally, that you need to take responsibility and make sure that you're able to solve problems and step into the breach because there's nobody other than you who's going to solve them. That doesn't mean there haven't been occasions in my life where the idea of having an older, wiser figure who's been through the ropes before and can avoid having you make the same mistakes he made would not have been nice, but those just aren't the cards that I was dealt.

On this toughness theme, I was struck by the detail in which you recalled how your stepfather taught you how to box.
I remember that very vividly, and my stepfather was a good man who gave me some things that were very helpful. One of the things that he gave me was a pretty hardheaded assessment of how the world works. That chapter in my first book talking about Indonesia really spoke to impulses that continue in me to this day, and that is between the idealism of my mother and her sense of empathy and compassion, and the hardheaded realism that the world out there can be tough, that there is evil in the world and not every problem can be solved by mutual understanding, and that power will assert itself and may not stop asserting itself until it hits a wall. I think that's true in American politics, and I think that's true in foreign policy. [You need] countervailing power. Which is why you have very rarely seen me in my campaigns throwing the first punch. But I'll tell you what, if I get punched, very rarely have you seen me not hit back hard.

Usually politicians who look back on difficult childhoods re-imagine them to make them more congenial, but you seem to have a much colder eye about things.
I don't do too many touch-ups on this. My father was a deeply troubled person. My father was an alcoholic. He was a womanizer. He did not treat his children well. I think that even my mother, who loved him and was always very generous toward him, said to me once that I probably ended up benefiting from not having grown up with him because he was very hard on those children who were in his household, and in a lot of ways he was a tortured soul. The reconciliation that I had with him in my own mind and heart came about not from idealizing him but rather from understanding where those difficulties came from. Here's a guy who really made a leap from the 15th century to the 20th century in the span of a few years, and in that sense was typical of a lot of people from developing or Third World countries in those early years in the '50s and '60s and got caught up in the crosscurrents of a traditional premodern culture and a traditional modern culture. Some people managed that transition gracefully and some, like my father, were always torn by it. And he was also affected by his own father, who, from the stories I ended up hearing, had his own troubles and also had to deal with the intersection between traditional and modern life. Some of this is a feat of imagination on my part, because I was never able to speak directly to [my father] and I can't guarantee that my interpretation of him is the right one, but in my own mind at least I am at rest with the idea that this was someone who made an awful lot of mistakes in his life, but at least I understand why.