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Obama's Nature

David Brooks makes an important point about Barack Obama’s temperament--that he possesses a kind of equanimity reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He and they 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.”  He might have also added Dwight Eisenhower to this list.

But I don’t quite agree with Brooks’ analysis of why Obama, Reagan, and Roosevelt possess this quality. Brooks says that Obama’s biography is more similar to that of turbulent-minded presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. “Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second,” Brooks writes. “He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother.” Brooks does not say it, but he implies that Roosevelt and Reagan grew up strong, caring, and ever present fathers.

But guess what? Reagan’s father was a drunk who saw himself as a failure in life. Reagan seemed to be raised more by his mother than father; and he always attributed his faith and optimism to his mother. Roosevelt’s father was 54-years-old when Franklin, an only child, was born, and was reputed to be a sickly and distant father, who died when Franklin was 18. Of course, both Reagan and Roosevelt spoke admiringly of their fathers, but there is no question that they were mother’s boys. And indeed, when psychologists have tried to explain the self-confidence of people like Roosevelt, they have pointed to doting mothers.

Does this sound familiar? It’s not that different from the Barack Obama story. Obama wrote a book about looking for his father, but the key parent in his life was always his mother not his father. His father--like Reagan’s and Roosevelt’s fathers--was the odd parent out. What’s different from Reagan and Roosevelt is that for Obama’s teen years, his mother was sometimes absent, her place being taken by her parents. But there is still more similarity than difference between Obama’s biography and that of Roosevelt and Reagan.

And this is not to say--and I agree with Brooks here--that Obama will be as successful a president as either of these men. Or that this kind of temperament is a prerequisite for great leadership--Abraham Lincoln, who was dogged by depression, was no slouch. But in the course of the two-year long campaign for office, Obama has certainly demonstrated an emotional capacity for leadership that is eerily reminiscent of Roosevelt and Reagan.

--John B. Judis