Every now and then, as Obama did verbal battle with his adversary, I noticed something I didn't expect to see. It was a gesture he made with his hand: for emphasis, he would point at Romney with his thumb. I wasn't the only one to have seen this. In a short piece on the BBC website, a reporter wrote:
"Featured in the three presidential debates were Romney, Obama, and Obama's thumb. At the debates, the president frequently jabbed his hand, with his thumb resting atop a loosely curled fist, to emphasise a point. The gesture – which might appear unnatural in normal communication – was probably coached into Obama to make him appear more forceful … And pointing the index finger is simply seen as rude and too aggressive."
But I'd seen this gesture before, and Obama hadn't learnt it from a debating coach. Whether consciously or not, he was revealing his boyhood in the Indonesian island of Java, where it is considered impolite to point with your index finger. Seeing Obama point with his thumb in the debates confirmed something I had suspected for some time. Whatever else he might be, Obama is America's first Javanese president.
Some time ago, I devoted a significant period of time and study to the traditions of Javanese kingship. I was writing a book called Obscure Kingdoms (1993) about traditions of kingship in non-western societies, and I spent a period of time in Indonesia. One of the book's chapters was about kingship in Java and, in the course of my research, I had become well-acquainted with a certain Javanese mannerism. I was struck to see that mannerism once again, uncannily echoed by Obama during the televised US presidential debates.
Unlike most political analysts, I see the imprint of Java in Obama far more than the imprint of Hawaii (where he was born and later went to high school); more than the imprint of Chicago (where he began his political career); and certainly more than Kenya (a highly popular notion that is particularly far-fetched). Indeed, it was in Java that Obama spent his childhood, had his primary education, and where his mother made her career. It was the country where his stepfather and his half-sister were born, and which he visited several times in his early adulthood. Obamastill speaks some Indonesian.
Considerable time and energy has been spent speculating and theorising about Obama's Kenyan background. There is a ridiculous book called The Roots of Obama's Rage (2011) by Dinesh D'Souza. It's a piece of popular controversialism which suggests that the key to understanding Obama – as a man and as a president – lies in his Kenyan background. Obama's father, whom he barely knew, was a government economist in the early days of Kenyan independence. D'Souza argues that Obama inherited his father's Kenyan anticolonial mindset, and that this is what motivates Obama politically and informs how he sees the world.
Naturally, the idea caught on in the loony blogosphere, and as a result, there are now millions of people in America who hold the view that Obama's political approach is somehow "Kenyan", and that by the end of Obama's term of office, the US will be governed according to a pernicious form of Kenyan socialism.
It's true that Obama has written comparatively little about his time in Java in either of his books. His first autobiographical book, Dreams from My Father (1995), is principally about his search for Barack Obama Sr's Kenyan roots. In fact, he only went to Kenya to research this book. The search for his African roots was important to him in his journey of self-discovery and self-invention, a process that was completed in his adoption of African-American cultural and social identity, and his choice of the black neighbourhoods of Chicago as the place where he began his political career.
Part of the process of forging his own identity and his own path in life involved distinguishing himself from the worldview of his mother, Ann Dunham, which was based on her international development work in Java. Most telling of all perhaps, when it comes to Obama's own downplaying of his time in Java, was a comment in his second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), in which he wrote: "Most Americans can't locate Indonesia on a map."
While Dreams from My Father was about the father who returned to Kenya when Barack was a baby, undoubtedly the strongest influence on Obama throughout his childhood was his mother. A truly extraordinary person, Dunham was an anthropologist who devoted her life to the study of small-scale industry in rural Java, while also working as a development economist and raising two children. When Barack was six, he and his mother moved from Hawaii, where he was born, to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where he spent the formative years of his childhood.
It was in Java where Obama learnt and adopted the cool, calm, unflappable personal and presidential style that has earned him the nickname "No Drama Obama". It's a genuinely Javan ideal.
• This is an excerpt from an article published in Aeon, a digital magazine on science, art, nature and culture: see the full version of Edward Fox's essay