What We've Learned About Obama

Barack Obama began his presidency with an unusual attribute, namely that the country already thought it understood him. The story he told in his two books was about a man of multiple worlds who comes to terms with his father's abandonment and a confounding racial identity. Obama resolves his anger by committing himself socially, religiously and eventually politically. He depicts his mature self as unusually able to see other points of view and bridge chasms.

The protagonist of these books is a persuasive and appealing character—so much so that he left little demand for alternative explanations. As time goes by, though, Obama's Obama feels less satisfying. It's not that the author's projection of himself is distorted in any obvious way, but that it leaves too much unexplained—his ambition, his aloofness, his fundamental beliefs. It's too soon to offer an interpretation of our president. But after four months in office, here are some emerging themes.

He sees the middle ground as high ground. Candidates who talk about bringing people together or changing the tone in Washington are usually blowing happy smoke. But Obama's focus on reconciliation is clearly more than shtik. We saw this impulse at work when he made preemptive concessions on his stimulus package in an effort to win Republican support. We saw it when, at the G20 summit, he personally brokered a compromise between the French and Chinese presidents over international tax havens. Every few days, Obama tries for a "new beginning"—with Iran, Cuba, the Muslim world, Paul Krugman. Engaging with opponents animates him more than hanging with friends.

This is a wonderful instinct that is bettering America's image and making domestic politics more civil. But listening, and seeking compromise, is not a moral stance. Elevating it to one merely highlights the question of what Obama really stands for. The consensus-seeker repudiates torture but doesn't want to investigate it; he endorses gay equality but not in marriage or the military; he thinks government's role is to do whatever works. I continue to suspect him of harboring deeper convictions.

He's the decider. Really. Accounts of Obama's decision making depict him driving process as well as result. Faced with a tough call about whether to declassify Bush torture memos, Obama asked for a debate, listened intently and finished by dictating the next day's press release. He personally directed the government's restructuring demands for GM and Chrysler. Obama sees himself as both ringmaster and star performer. He appointed a galaxy of policy czars, yet now seems determined to do their jobs as well as his own.

The president's knack for deep dives into policy questions is impressive. But as quick a study as he is, his supreme confidence may shade into overconfidence. He shows signs of suffering from the arrogance that often accompanies brilliance. It's unlikely, for instance, that Obama can function as his own grand strategy guru. But he doesn't seem inclined to give the job to anyone else.

He likes it hot. If you get someone close to Obama in a friendly conversation, he's likely to marvel at the president's comfort level with crisis. This is a man who plays it cool at all times but has never liked standing still. He ran for Congress prematurely and lost, and then ran for the Senate prematurely and got lucky. He was quickly bored in the Senate, where it took too long to get things done. When he was thinking about running for president, his question was whether the moment would be ripe for a great leader.

He needn't have worried. Obama has more troubles to deal with, foreign and domestic, than anybody since FDR. One day last month, he faced decisions about the fate of Detroit, a new strategy for Afghanistan, a North Korean missile threat and a flood in Fargo. "What is this, a West Wing episode?" David Axelrod quipped, according to The New York Times. The issue here is capacity, not capability. Can any one person simultaneously manage so many issues in a hands-on way? Our last presidential micromanager, Jimmy Carter, did not have a pleasant time in Washington.

He's ruthless. In a recent interview with the Times, Obama described his economic policy as "ruthless pragmatism." Interesting choice of modifier. Obama has a healthy disdain for the overrated virtue of political loyalty. But around nominations, his lack of loyalty was slightly chilling to witness. If you're useful (Hillary Clinton), you can hang around with him. If you start to look like a liability (Tom Daschle), enjoy your time with the wolves. Before the inauguration, Christopher Hitchens described Obama as feline in his demeanor. The president is catlike also in his lack of evident affection for the people who serve him. His cracks at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner about Hillary being an envious loser, Larry Summers's problem with women and training his new dog not to pee on Tim Geithner skirted cruelty. Even Obama's jokes about himself were telling: they were all about how great everyone thinks he is.