We've been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn't been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn't been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.
Some candidates are motivated by something they lack. For LBJ, it was respect. For Bill Clinton, it was adoration. These politicians are motivated to fill that void. Their challenge once in office is self-regulation. How will they control the demons, insecurities and longings that fired their ambitions?
But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically FDR and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.
Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. "I learned long ago to distrust my childhood," he wrote in Dreams From My Father. This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.
But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day.
There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It's not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he's become a homeostasis machine.
When Bob Schieffer asked him tough questions during the debate Wednesday night, he would step back and describe the broader situation. When John McCain would hit him with some critique - even about fetuses being left to die on a table - he would smile in amusement at the political game they were playing. At every challenging moment, his instinct was to self-remove and establish an observer's perspective.
Through the debate, he was reassuring and self-composed. McCain, an experienced old hand, would blink furiously over the tension of the moment, but Obama didn't reveal even unconscious signs of nervousness. There was no hint of an unwanted feeling.
They say we are products of our environments, but Obama, the sojourner, seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them. Over the past two years, he has been the subject of nearly unparalleled public worship, but far from getting drunk on it, he has become less grandiloquent as the campaign has gone along.
When Bill Clinton campaigned, he tried to seduce his audiences. But at Obama rallies, the candidate is the wooed, not the wooer. He doesn't seem to need the audience's love. But they need his. The audiences hunger for his affection, while he is calm, appreciative and didactic.
He doesn't have FDR's joyful nature or Reagan's happy outlook, but he is analytical. That's why this William Ayers business doesn't stick. He may be liberal, but he is never wild. His family is bourgeois. His instinct is to flee the revolutionary gesture in favor of the six-point plan.
This was not evident back in the "fierce urgency of now" days, but it is now. And it is easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president. He would be untroubled by self-destructive demons. With that cool manner, he would see reality unfiltered. He could gather - already has gathered - some of the smartest minds in public policy, and, untroubled by intellectual insecurity, he could give them free rein. Though he is young, it is easy to imagine him at the Cabinet table, leading a subtle discussion of some long-term problem.
Of course, it's also easy to imagine a scenario in which he is not an island of rationality in a sea of tumult, but simply an island. New presidents are often amazed by how much they are disobeyed, by how often passive-aggressiveness frustrates their plans.
It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anticlimax.
It's hard to know how the story ends. But over the past two years, Obama has clearly worn well with voters. Far from a celebrity fad, he is self-contained, self-controlled and maybe even a little dull.
©New York Times News Service