A multicultural president

The reviewer examines how President Obama's time growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii influenced his development, education, and his rise to presidency

By J. Scott Lewis, PhD

Barrack Obama in Hawai’i and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President
By Dinesh Sharma
Praeger, 2011, 274 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0313385339

One of the more interesting and eloquent biographies on Barack Obama published to date, this book takes a unique perspective on the man and the president. Presented as the first cultural biography of America’s 44th president, Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia attempts to understand the socialization of a multicultural President through the lens of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Combining an analysis of the intersection of personal biography and cultural history—what sociologists would refer to as the development of the sociological imagination—the  book charts the course of the development of the identity and beliefs of the nation’s first black president. As the author explains, there is a deep connection between Obama’s upbringing in Hawai’i, a state with a rich history of diversity and multiculturalism; his time spent in Indonesia, a nation with a strong secular Muslim population; and Obama’s development as the first truly global president. As Obama proceeds through his childhood and young adulthood, his struggles to find his unique voice while coming to terms with the death of his mythologized, absent father shape Obama into the populist champion that he ultimately becomes. Sharma argues that this unique socialization (well-detailed in the book) has prepared Obama to lead the United States to a rebirth in an increasingly global world.
Sharma details with great clarity Obama’s time in Jakarta, Indonesia, where much of his early socialization took place. It is here, Sharma argues, that Obama began to shape his uniquely multicultural perspective. Finding his way in a predominantly Muslim country that was only beginning to emerge on the world stage, Obama learns the benefits of compromise and cultural relativism—traits that will serve him well in later roles as a community organizer, senator, and president. Later, returning to the multicultural state of Hawai’I, Obama continues his development and education at the Punahou school, further developing his intellect.

The identity transition becomes complete only when Obama moves to the mainland and discovers that his father has perished in a car accident. According to Sharma, it is this defining event, that solidifies Obama’s personality as he struggles to come to grips with the actions of his absent and somewhat mysterious father. It is here on the mainland that “Barry” fully adopts the name and accompanying identity of Barack Obama. Sharma suggests this is a hybrid identity that has prepared Obama to take the reins of a changing United States.
At times, however, the book becomes an Obama apology. Several times, the book loses focus from the developmental psychology perspective that it takes and sneaks in an evident bias that detracts from the broader message. Indeed, there is often too little discussion of the specific connections to the normative crises explicit in Erikson’s developmental stages. In its place, the author spends time dismissing canards. At the same time, the author creates some canards of his own. For example, Sharma declares Obama a great orator in the style of Obama’s hero and father figure Abraham Lincoln and argues that Obama is uniquely qualified to avert a clash of civilizations. However, the author ignores legitimate evidence to the contrary as he tries to make this case. Indeed, Sharma ignores the historic failures of the soft power he suggest that Obama employs.
It remains to be seen whether many of the predictions about the legacy of Barack Obama that Sharma makes will come true. It would perhaps have been wise to wait until the end of Obama’s tenure to write the book. Despite the fact that the book stands as a brilliant approach to analyzing the development of a president, there is still much history to be written on the Obama presidency.