A different prism.

Photographer: Michael Kovac/WireImage

Obama's American Vision

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Barack Obama interviewed author Marilynne Robinson in Iowa on September 14. The transcript, published in the New York Review of Books, is remarkable -- not least for the juxtaposition of a sitting president in the seemingly unprecedented role of interviewer rather than interviewee. That the president is earnestly questioning a woman whom most Americans have never heard of only heightens the wonder.

Like Obama's own writing, the transcript is a readily accessible window into the president's mind and values. And like his own writing, it will be willfully ignored or deliberately misinterpreted by those who prefer the monstrous Obama of their nightmares to the real thing.

As it happens, the night terrors of democracy are a primary topic of the conversation between Obama and Robinson, the author of the novel "Gilead." Right-wing paranoia about the president is the clear and present subtext. It's a discussion about Christianity and democracy. But in large part it's an autopsy of fear.

"But fear was very much -- is on my mind," Robinson replies to an Obama question, "because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people."

She continued: "But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don't agree with -- you know?"

Yes, he knows. This was his reply:

Well, now there's been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

After six years of arguments over the 21st century equivalents of communist fluoridation, and an opposition party that still cannot bring itself to accept the legitimacy of a collective 135 million votes cast for his presidency, Obama's ability to stand both outside the battles of his time, and in someone else's shoes, is uncanny.

Robinson and Obama have trod this ground before together.

"Sometimes you get -- I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments," Obama told her.

Robinson replied: "But when you say that to me, I say to you, you're a better person than I am."

Robinson was born in Idaho (where her novel "Housekeeping" is based) and has lived in Iowa City since 1989. Raised a Presbyterian, she is a Congregationalist who is a defender of old-fashioned Calvinism. Like her work, both fiction and nonfiction, her life is steeped in Christianity. A New York Times magazine profile of Robinson counted more than a dozen bibles on her bookshelf -- "two versions of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuaginta, Jerome’s Latin translation, the Biblia Vulgata and three editions of Tyndale’s early English translation."

If Obama wanted to troll his most virulent opponents, he picked a worthy accomplice.

"I mean, when people are turning in on themselves -- and God knows, arming themselves and so on -- against the imagined other, they're not taking their Christianity seriously," Robinson protested.

Obama is a self-conscious politician. He has no illusions that he is anything but "imagined other" to millions of his fellow countrymen. But in a poignant moment, he harked back to a time before the partisan storm. "People always, I think, were surprised about me connecting with folks in small-town Iowa. And the reason I did was, first of all, I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary."

Obama's basic optimism, his gameness for the challenge, appears resurgent after more than six years in office. He's still fiddling with the Rubik's Cube of American politics, trying to get the squares aligned.

He spoke of the gap between common life -- marked by "homespun values" and common endeavor -- and political life -- marked by stridency and distrust. "And the thing I've been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap" between the two, Obama said. "There's all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics."

One of the more insidious aspects of Obama hatred is the relentless effort to uproot him from American soil and experience. The imputations of foreign birth or foreign spiritualism or foreign ideology are all attempts to dislocate him.

Its serial dishonesty aside, the effort was doomed from the start. The conversation between Robinson and Obama is timelessly, quintessentially, exclusively between Americans. Someday, every American will get that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net