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Obama shaped more by his WASP heritage than the passion of Martin Luther King


Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," wrote Shakespeare. And to be President Barack Obama at this time of world crises must be such a grave responsibility - made all the more vexatious by the disappointment many commentators express about his performance as president: that he has been vacillating; that he has not shown the leadership that is expected of the most powerful politician in the world; that he indicates at one moment he is ready for war and the next that he is ready for negotiation; that veterans like Henry Kissinger are now calling for more action from the White House.

His second term doesn't end until 2016, so a definitive judgment of his presidency may be premature. And no matter what occurs, Barack Obama will always hold the historic record of having been the first African-American president of the United States, which was certainly a source of huge pride to the black community in America.

And yet, what has been culturally interesting is Mr Obama's style and presentational approach. With his cool, detached, self-assured diction, he is at the polar opposite of someone like the impassioned Martin Luther King, whose eloquence stirred crowds; or the committed, rousing Jesse Jackson, who also has something of the lay preacher.

Obama, by contrast, is more like a languid, upper-class lawyer at the Old Bailey - knowledgeable and poised, but never ruffled. He is the master of his brief: never stumbles over a word and seldom shows any discernible emotion. He can be pleasant and affable, he can be authoritative and dignified. But the abiding impression with Obama is that he is always controlled.

This is not an impulsive person who is going to say something daft and airheaded, as George W Bush did on occasions.

Unlike Bill Clinton, you feel certain that Barack Obama will never be caught out in an indiscretion. He will never lose the run of himself. And that, in a way, is the irony of his position of having been the first black President of the United States. In his personality, in his stance, in all his attitudes, Obama seems much more like a WASP than an Afro-American.

That unemotional delivery, that rational detachment seems much more characteristic of the traditional White Anglo-Saxon Protestant caste which ruled America in its first 200 years than of the more soulful African-American tradition.

But then, of course, Mr Obama really is half-WASP, on his mother's side. He seemed more interested in his Kenyan father, notably when he wrote his fascinating autobiography, 'Dreams From My Father', than in his mother's heritage. And perhaps it is natural that a young man who grows up without a dad should be focused on finding and identifying with that absent father.

Moreover, when he was campaigning for the presidency, his opponents made much of his father's African identity, tracked down family connections from polygamous marriage practice, and even questioned whether young Barack was really born in America. His supporters, meanwhile, including those among the African-American community, emphasised the fact that Obama was 'black'.Thus, on all sides, Barack Obama was very much identified as the first black president.

The fact that he is of mixed race was recessed into the background by both supporters and opponents.

In a way, this did a disservice to the contribution of his mother, Ann Dunham, who made a much more significant contribution to his formation (as did her parents, his grandparents, who played an active part in his upbringing).

So when I watch President Obama speaking publicly, in his persona as the leader of the Western world, I fancy that I see not the influence of his Kenyan father, but that of his Kansas mother, and her parents. His presentational skills are pure WASP: no matter what the crisis, he never gets over-excited or goes into meltdown. And maybe that's a good thing.

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We shouldn't, of course, stereotype individuals according to the image of their ethnicity. Not all Latins are hot-blooded and not all Brits are phlegmatic.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a terrific play, 'John Bull's Other Island', in which stereotypes were reversed: the Englishman was romantic and mystical, while the Irishman was calculating and cool-headed. There's no reason why an African-American shouldn't behave like a WASP, and vice-versa.

President Obama has some tough decisions to make about Syria, Iraq and the Middle East, as well as about Russia and the Ukraine. At the end of the day, it's the substance and not the style of his leadership that history will judge.

But it's an interesting cultural point, all the same, that the first American president, so strongly and so proudly identified as an African-American, has a public personality and a manner of address that calls to mind those stolid founders who sailed on the Mayflower to establish that early White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant America.

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