“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism,” he told me. “I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”
“Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” he answered. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Time permitting, I will have more to say on Jeffrey Goldberg’s long article on “The Obama Doctrine,” or at any rate I expect it to remain a key reference for anyone trying to think through the meaning of the Obama presidency and of this world-historical moment. For now I will say that, to me, among the most interesting passages in this piece, which qualifies as a “must-read” if anything in contemporary magazine journalism can, are those which feature Obama’s self-analysis, especially his denunciation of tribalism and his confession of his own excessive rationalism. These two aspects of Obama’s worldview are connected or at least parallel, yet at the same time dysfunctionally separate – complementary and conjoined, but impossible for Obama himself to bring together effectively.
The President seems to understand, rationally, that his rationalism will be dissatisfying to those who seek or need to derive a perhaps irrevocably non-rationalizable – not merely rational – meaning from political allegiance or identity. Yet he needs those people; or, in other, capitalized, words: The President needs the People. In the form of a question: How can a nation survive, can its institutions function, can it prosper and triumph, can the People experience or aspire to satisfaction, without recourse at some point to such “tribalism”?
The President cannot answer, because no one can. His perhaps “literally” congenital inability to understand the Middle East as focus and root of a positive American Judeo-Christian or “tribal” identity (a “present absence” embodied in his interlocutor!) would be of a piece with this confessed flaw, in a way that his most ardent critics are rarely any better at explaining, and that his most ardent supporters may remain unable to recognize as a flaw.