Obama doesn’t play the game the way it is usually played. He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: “I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.” Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is “neat, almost empty”, with money squirreled away throughout. It’s clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it’s also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Ask yourself when you last heard of a politician who had to warn himself away from solitude, or who saw dying alone, without friends or family, as among his possible fates. Imagine how unlikely it is that, say, Bill Clinton ever thought: I have grown too comfortable in my solitude. Politicians normally crave attention. Obama seems to me not to. That’s probably one reason why he can afford to underplay his hand sometimes, and to hold back. And it’s certainly part of what makes him so interesting.
(Yeah, I realize it’s been blockquote-o-rama lately. Cut me some slack. I’ll write more when Obama’s president.)