No longer a blank slate: Obama, 4 years later

By Jerry Schwartz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

In these Sept. 26, 2012, file photo, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney both campaign in the battleground state of Ohio.

Associated Press

Nearly four years after Barack Obama was elected to the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, the question remains: Who is he?

He seemed to come out of nowhere. He had served seven years in the Illinois Senate, and less than four years in the U.S. Senate — a meager political resume, augmented by a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

His was an exotic story, at least by the standards of the 42 white men who preceded him in office. Son of a black African and white Kansan, born in Hawaii, raised there and in Indonesia, he was something new, and America seemed ready for him. He won almost 9.5 million votes more than John McCain.

And yet, "there was the feeling that we knew less than we needed to know" about our new president, says Janny Scott, author of "A Singular Woman," a biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama's mother. "He didn't fit a comfortable template."

Four years have passed. We have watched Obama as commander in chief, waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and we have seen him accept the Nobel Peace Prize. We have seen him grapple with a dismal economy and a relentless opposition. We have been spectators to a grueling fight over health care from which he emerged victorious — if only just barely. All of this in the glare of a fierce and unyielding media spotlight.

By now, we should have a fix on the man who is asking for a second term.

But still we ask: Who is Barack Obama?

On the last night of April in 2011, Obama put on his black tie for the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton. Obama was in good form that night; he congratulated Donald Trump, then considering a run for the Republican nomination, on his recent decision to fire actor Gary Busey on "Celebrity Apprentice."

"These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night," Obama said, to peals of laughter. "Well-handled, sir. Well-handled."

What his audience didn't realize — what few people knew at that moment — was that Obama had, just hours before, given the go-ahead for the mission that would claim the life of America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. It was a huge gamble, perhaps the biggest of Obama's presidency.

"If that failed, it really would have been a political disaster," says historian Robert Dallek, who has written books on presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. "It would have been reminiscent of Jimmy Carter and the helicopter going down in the Iranian desert" in an ill-starred effort to rescue American hostages from Tehran.

If Obama was nervous, he kept it hidden. In fact, he played nine holes of golf the next morning, before returning to the White House to monitor the unfolding mission during what he later described as "the longest 40 minutes of my life."

It was retired Air Force Chief of Staff Tony McPeak, an Obama supporter, who first called him "No-Drama Obama" during the 2008 campaign. The nickname stuck, perhaps because sang-froid is central to Obama's personality.

"That measured approach to everything characterizes a lot of what he has done," says David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. "It's kind of remarkable how he has stayed in character, as if he were the calm, cool grown-up in the room."

This has not always worked in his favor; at his first debate with Mitt Romney, he appeared detached, almost professorial, and he took a beating in the polls. Repeatedly, he has frustrated supporters who say he does not express righteous anger when he should.

Kennedy recalls that in 1936, when FDR was running for his second term, he declared the start of the second New Deal — and pronounced himself ready to take on the many, moneyed powers aligned against him: "They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred."

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