Barack Obama grew up learning how to slip in and out of different worlds — black and white, foreign and American, rich and poor.
The son of an anthropologist, he developed a lot of “tricks,” as he put it, training himself to be a close observer of human nature, figuring out what others needed so he could get where he wanted to go.
He was able to banish any fear in older white folk that he was an angry young black man — with smiles, courtesy and, as he wrote in his memoir, “no sudden moves.” He learned negotiating skills as a community organizer and was able to ascend to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review by letting a disparate band of self-regarding eggheads feel that they were being heard and heeded.
As Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor who mentored the young Obama, put it, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.” He can leave you thinking he agrees, when often he’s only agreeing to leave you thinking he agrees.
He privately rolls his eyes at the way many in politics and government spend so much time preening and maneuvering for credit rather than simply doing their jobs. Yet with that detached and novelistic eye that allows him to be a great writer, he is also able to do a kind of political jujitsu, where he assesses the bluster and insecurities of other politicians, defuses them, and then uses them to his advantage.
Gabriel Byrne’s brooding psychoanalyst on “In Treatment” might envy Barack Obama’s calming psychoanalysis in Europe. He may not have come away with all he wanted substantively. His hand was too weak going in, and there was too much hostility toward America, thanks to W.’s blunders and Cheney’s bullying. But he showed a psychological finesse that has been missing from American leadership for a long time.
“Each country has its own quirks,” he said at his London press conference, indicating that you had to intuit how much you could prod each leader.
W. always bragged about his instincts, saying he knew whom to trust based on his gut. But even with the help of psychologists putting together profiles of dictators and other major players for our intelligence services, Bush and his inner circle were extraordinarily obtuse about reading the motivations and the intentions of friends and foes.
How could it never occur to them that Saddam Hussein might simply be bluffing about the size of his W.M.D. arsenal to keep the Iranians and other antagonists at bay?
W. bristled at French and German leaders because he thought they were condescending to him. He thought he saw into Vladimir Putin’s soul until the Russian leader showed his totalitarian stripes.
W. and Condi were so clueless about the mind-set of Palestinians that Condi was blindsided by the Hamas victory in 2006, learning the news from TV as she did the elliptical at 5 a.m. in the gym of her Watergate apartment.
The Bush chuckleheads misread the world and insisted that everyone else go along with their deluded perception, and they bullied the world and got huffy if the world didn’t quickly fall in line.
President Obama, by contrast, employed smart psychology in the global club, even on small things, like asking other leaders if they wanted to start talking first at news conferences.
With Anglo-American capitalism on trial and Gordon Brown floundering in the polls, Mr. Obama took pains to drape an arm around “Gordon” and return to using the phrase “special relationship.” He gave a shout-out to the Brown kids, saying he’d talked dinosaurs with them.
He won points with a prickly Sarkozy when he intervened in an argument about tax havens between the French and Chinese leaders, pulling them into a corner to help them “get this all in some kind of perspective” and find a middle ground. Mr. Obama also played to the ego of the Napoleonic French leader, saying at their press conference, “He’s courageous on so many fronts, it’s hard to keep up.”
Soon Sarko was back gushing over his charmant Americain ami.
Having an Iowa-style town hall in Strasbourg with enthusiastic French and German students was a clever ploy to underscore his popularity on the world stage, and put European leaders on notice that many of their constituents are also his.
Like a good shrink, the president listens; it’s a way of flattering his subjects and sussing them out without having to fathom what’s in their soul. “It is easy to talk to him,” Dmitri Medvedev said after their meeting. “He can listen.” The Russian president called the American one “my new comrade.”
Mr. Obama, the least silly of men, was even willing to mug for a silly Facebook-ready picture, grinning and giving a thumbs-up with Medvedev and a goofy-looking Silvio Berlusconi.Now that America can’t put everyone under its thumb, a thumbs-up and a killer smile can go a long way.