Obama illustration
© Luis Grañena

Who was Barack Obama? One key to understanding his presidency is to see him above all as his mother’s son. Most of the chatter about his antecedents has focused on his Kenyan father. Boris Johnson, for instance, now the UK’s foreign secretary, once diagnosed “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

But Obama barely met his absent father. He himself has identified the “dominant figure in my formative years” as his mother, Ann Dunham. She was an anthropologist — a scholar who studies foreign cultures. Being an anthropologist’s son myself (though, unlike Obama, I actually was born in east Africa), I’ve always sensed that the family business explains a lot about his presidency. In the words of Harvard anthropologist John Comaroff, Obama is “an organic anthropologist”.

When he was six, his mother took him to Indonesia, where she had married a local man. There she began what became her magnum opus: a study of peasant blacksmiths on Java. It was a typical anthropological project, an attempt to understand how another tribe sees the world.

Obama ate dog, snake and grasshopper, learnt Bahasa Indonesian, and got used to children throwing stones at his black skin. Aged 10, he returned to Hawaii, where he was born, to live with his grandparents but he continued visiting his mother in Indonesia. He rarely discusses his Indonesian years, presumably because most US voters don’t like their leaders foreign, but this formative experience as a cultural outsider makes him almost unique among US presidents.

Even in Hawaii, Obama remained an outsider. The state was nearly five hours’ flight from the continental US, and hardly any black people lived there. He got to know the American mainland only at college. But by then he was already a confirmed outsider, taught both by his experience and his mother’s anthropological outlook to see every culture — including the US itself — from outside. It’s wrong to understand Obama chiefly as a product of his ethnic identity, or as a mainstream American liberal like his mother. Rather, he wasn’t raised in any group.

The “birther” jibes, therefore, aren’t simple racism against a black president. After all, although black Americans suffer horrible discrimination, hardly anyone questions their Americanness. Instead, birthers are pointing up Obama’s perceived foreignness.

Viewing the US from the outside, President Obama never seems to have bought the notion that it is an exceptional country with a superior culture and God-given duty to save the world. Asked on his first trip overseas as president whether he believed in American exceptionalism, he replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism. Just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

That upset some voters. Obama can seem apart from his own country, haughty, almost a foreigner in the White House. Stephen Gudeman, anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, says: “He keeps a distance from what is going on, which I think is classically anthropological.”

Later, Obama sometimes paid lip service to American exceptionalism but his actions don’t suggest he believes it. I suspect one reason he didn’t intervene in Syria is that he doesn’t think the US has a manifest destiny or indeed any unique expertise to fix other countries. As for America’s domestic arrangements, he commented after last year’s mass shooting in Charleston: “You don’t see murder on this kind of scale, this kind of frequency, in any other advanced nation.” He was talking about the US as just another country — something almost taboo in American political discourse.

Another tenet of anthropology, says Gudeman, is that all people are equally valuable. Obama has spent political capital on America’s untouchables: prisoners and people without health insurance, who are usually ignored in US politics because they enjoy little public sympathy, rarely vote and don’t make political donations.

But it’s in Obama’s diplomacy that the organic anthropologist shows clearest. After talks last year with the Afghan president and anthropologist Ashraf Ghani, Obama quoted the anthropologist Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”` Anthropologists accept that different people see the world differently: Indonesian blacksmiths don’t think like Californian accountants. The anthropologist attempts to communicate with the other tribe, understand it, and bridge those differences rather than try to erase them.

That has been Obama’s approach to tribes as foreign as Iran’s mullahs, Cuba’s ruling communists and America’s Republicans. He will talk to anyone except a group like Isis, whose only agenda is to kill people. No matter the insults thrown at him, he keeps talking. He doesn’t think, as George W Bush seemed to, that hostile tribes are evil, or that they would think like Americans if only they could be made to see the light. Gudeman says: “You never hear Obama talk about rogue nations. An anthropologist does not say, ‘My culture is superior.’”

For Donald Trump, Obama’s instinct to understand the other is a soft-headed weakness that foreign tribes are bound to exploit. We may soon find out whether the un-anthropological approach is any better at making America great.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

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