In an effort to understand Barack Obama better, I've been reading the book Obama: From Promise to Power written by David Mendell, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, who got an intimate look at Obama when he was covering the candidate in his successful Illinois senate campaign.
The portrayal of Obama reveals him to be a complex man, with strengths and flaws both inherited from his upbringing and his parents.
He clearly idealized his mother and has been quoted as saying, "all of the good qualities I have, I got from her."
His grandmother was, by contrast, quite a skeptic. With a cagey, sometimes distant, often crusty streak, she was the one who called into question her daughter, Barack's mother's, pie-in-the-sky dreaminess. She was the voice of reality and pragmatism and she did not mince words and spoke her mind no matter the consequences. Though she had no college education, she had a self-made ethos that had taken her from rural Kansas to Hawaii as a bank secretary and then all the way to being the Vice-President of the bank itself. Though not particularly political and vaguely liberal, she was often inclined to vote Republican. With a provincial Kansas sense of skepticism of the outsider, she cast doubt upon her daughter's new husband, a Kenyan exchange student named Barack Hussein Obama. The Barack Hussein Obama we know is actually Barack Hussein Obama, Jr.
Obama, Sr. was an undeniably brilliant man himself. He came to America from Kenya as an exchange student to the University of Hawaii. He was a devout atheist, graduated top of his class in Economics, possessed an eloquent velvety voice tinged by a British accent, but was by no means especially physically attractive. His personal life, particularly with women was almost always a mess. He fathered nine children by four wives through the course of his life. After leaving the family when Barack was 2, he utterly abandoned his new wife and toddler son to take a fellowship at Harvard, never to return. In response, this resulted in a painful divorce.
In addition to his struggles with alcohol, Obama Sr. was a failed Kenyan politician. Though he had worked for an oil company, and though he had been sent by the Kenyan government to obtain American education to improve Kenya, upon his return to his native land, he did not have the tact and the diplomacy necessary to make the concessions and compromises necessary to be a success in politics or business.
Obama has always had an ambivalent relationship with his father, and an idealized one with his mother. While it is clear he does not hate his father, one senses some resentment at his behavior and his father's personal failings. One also senses, and this is confirmed through Obama Jr.'s writing, that he is attempting to redeem the mistakes of his father while reconciling that his father tried to do his best, but could not.
If self-identification is the core of who we vote for and if we vote with our heart above all else, then these both influence my support of Senator Obama for President. He and I both have an ambivalent relationship with our father. He and I both idealize our mother, who was a gentle dreamer, a Pollyanna, and inclined to see the best in people first. His mother, like mine, is an unapologetic liberal fighting for social justice and with a strong sense of morality. He and I are both the only son of nurturing, intelligent women, whose failings may be that they saw the best in people more than they were ever willing to see the failings. My father was the crusty, cynical, pragmatic side of affairs, quick to speak his mind, inherently skeptical, and politically moderate, though inclined often to vote Republican. Obama and I both had grandmothers who rose up from rural poverty to some degree of middle class success, without college degrees, largely self-made, albeit possessed with an unsentimental streak that made them far more comfortable in a man's world than in a woman's.
These are the influences that shaped Barack Obama, and many of them are the influences which shaped me. I feel as though I understand Obama fairly well because his story is closely linked to my own, and indeed, I think I am not alone in that sentiment.