The self-referential presidency of Barack Obama

Two words in that sentence would matter most. Throughout Obama’s time in the White House, his touchstone would not be that singular country on Earth, whose politics he was never able to bind together. Rather, it would be the man himself. My story. This was a presidency preoccupied with Obama’s exceptionalism as much as with America’s.

Modern presidents have often become conflated with the challenges and aspirations of their times. We speak of Richard Nixon’s silent majority, Jimmy Carter’s malaise, Ronald Reagan’s morning in America and George W. Bush’s wars. But with Obama, this personal identification has been compulsive, strategic and unceasing. In his 2006 manifesto, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama called himself “a prisoner of my own biography,” yet throughout his presidency, biography would also empower him. Whether in foreign policy, race relations, electoral politics, or even in the meaning of the hope and change he promised, Obama has turned to his life and symbolism as a default reference and all-purpose governing tool.

The personalized presidency can be inspiring. It can also feel arrogant. And it can bypass some of the very norms and institutions Obama rhapsodizes about so frequently — a dangerous proposition as the country braces for an unpredictable, unmoored successor.