Becoming Obama

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick Alfred A. Knopf, 672 pages, $29.95

Many books have already been written about Barack Obama -- the two most successful of them so far by Obama himself -- and many more books will be written about him during and after his presidency. But for the moment, the most thorough account of Obama's life to date is David Remnick's deeply researched and eloquently written biography. Remnick does not substantially challenge the story that Obama himself has presented, but he goes well beyond Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope and presents a deeper and more complicated story. It does little to tarnish Obama's image but differs at times from his own accounts.

Remnick's purpose here is not just to present the story of Obama's unusual and very interesting life. It is also to trace the extraordinary path of the first African American to enter the White House. The title of the book, The Bridge, is drawn from a statement by civil-rights-movement veteran John Lewis, now a member of Congress, who said during the 2009 inauguration that "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of the bridge in Selma." In making race such an important part of the story, Remnick rejects, without saying so, the attractive but false idea of a post-racial America. Instead, he treats race as a central part of Obama's rise to power -- both as an obstacle and as an advantage but never far from the center of his election as president.

Accounts of Obama's life are familiar to most Americans, but those accounts differ radically depending on how people have received their information and, perhaps more important, on what their preferences and prejudices may be. His admirers see in his life a courageous and even extraordinary path to adulthood that shaped him into an inspirational leader. His critics see other, sometimes fantastical stories -- that he was not born in the United States and is thus not eligible to be president, that he has concealed a conversion to Islam, that he is a secret (or not so secret) socialist who "pals around with terrorists," and that he is, of course, an African American, sparking the deep remaining prejudices of many white Americans.

Almost everyone knows that Obama grew up without a father. Many may not know that he grew up mostly motherless as well. Obama's mother spent much of her adult life in Indonesia, and Barack -- beginning at age 6 -- spent four years there before returning to Hawaii alone. He never lived with his mother again for any significant length of time and was, instead, raised by his white maternal grandparents in Hawaii. He attended the elite Punahou School, then went to Occidental College in Southern California. Looking for a less cosseted place, he transferred to Columbia University and graduated after two years there. He then worked for several years as a community organizer in New York and Chicago. His time at Harvard Law School, where he was among the older and more experienced law students, was pivotal for him. Relatively obscure at Columbia, he found himself a favorite of the faculty and among the most intelligent, talented, and respected members of his law school class. His election as president of the Harvard Law Review was a landmark of his career -- providing him national attention as the first African American to serve in that position. But at the same time that Obama was making a mark in the mostly white world of Harvard and the legal establishment, he was slowly finding his way into the African American community. Through much of his young life, he had paid little attention to race -- a result in part of his living in the aberrantly multicultural state of Hawaii, one of the few places in America where race is not a major part of the culture. But after he moved to the East Coast, he combined his cosmopolitan identity with an African American identity. He moved back and forth across these complementary (and sometimes conflicting) identities throughout his pre-presidential life.

Obama's early political career was rooted in the culture of community organizing, a frequent path to politics, especially for urban African Americans. But his political life was also rooted in the fractious, clubby world of the Chicago Democratic machine. He was not, at first, a natural politician. He won his first campaign -- for a seat in the Illinois Legislature -- only by disqualifying the incumbent after successfully challenging the petitions necessary for her inclusion on the ballot. A few years later, he ran a disastrous race against Bobby Rush, an entrenched incumbent African American congressman -- a race that almost everyone had warned him he could not win. He was an intelligent speaker but not yet an inspiring one; he seemed to many people -- black and white -- to sound like the law professor he was for a time. He was under tremendous pressure from the black political community in Chicago to "wait his turn," and he was under pressure as well from his wife to stabilize their family (and its finances -- a problem, eventually solved by the sensational success of his books). But however clumsy his early political life may have been, it was by now so important to him that he could not give it up.

Obama was a product of a new, post-movement generation of African Americans, highly educated, at home in the white world. But in much of the black political world, he was met with some skepticism, at least at first. Many African American politicians, bred in the years of protest and grievance, found Obama too aloof, too conciliatory, too much an intellectual. They admired him from a distance but were uncomfortable with him up close.

When a vacant Senate seat suddenly opened in 2004, Obama became an almost prohibitive front-runner in the race -- in part because two of his most formidable opponents were knocked out early because of sexual scandals. But his rapid rise was not just a result of his opponents' misfortunes. It was also a product of his growing political talent -- a new eloquence that came from his hard-won ability to combine the energy of traditional black oratory with his capacity to reach across divisions and raise the hopes of those who yearned for someone who could conciliate the fractiousness of American (and eventually global) politics.

Obama's greatest breakthrough -- without which he would likely not have become president -- was largely a result of luck. Illinois colleagues persuaded John Kerry to choose Obama as the keynote speaker at the 2004 convention. His sensational speech in Boston made him, as Remnick notes, "a political phenomenon" overnight -- an obscure state senator who suddenly became one of the most famous and revered figures in America. His speech combined his newfound oratorical power with a conciliatory message. ("There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and a Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America.") There was still a long way to go before he would become an entirely credible presidential candidate, but from the moment of his convention speech he became -- in the minds of many Americans, both black and white -- the first African American with a realistic chance of becoming president.

***

Remnick's account of Obama's rapid march from state senator to United States senator to president is already familiar to most followers of recent politics. But in these last chapters, as in the earlier ones, Remnick gives particular attention to the role of race in Obama's ascent. His sudden fame did not lead all African Americans to hope for his election. Many feared that he would be assassinated, and others feared that he would lose and destroy the chances of future African Americans to become president for decades. But Obama was now no longer an outsider in the black community. He was its shining example. His shrewd and effective efforts to keep himself highly visible after his election to the Senate helped draw overwhelming support from African Americans. But his success in attracting white people was perhaps even more extraordinary. Some were drawn to him because the idea of the first black president was so attractive, but many others were drawn to his impressive demeanor despite race and because of his conciliatory and tolerant tone (a welcome alternative to the deeply unpopular Bush presidency) but also by his own attractiveness.

Remnick's account of Obama's presidential campaign focuses largely on the role of race, and he provides important cameos of some of its most important moments -- notably the Jeremiah Wright controversy (which Obama transcended as a result of an extraordinary speech). But the campaign story is generally familiar, and Remnick understandably provides a kind of summary of a story that will still be well known among most readers. He closes his book with a brief summary of Obama's first year in office. Like most of the president's hopeful admirers, he reflects the disappointment that many felt as his inspirational campaign turned into a drab and intractable set of problems and challenges -- culminating in the apparent failure of health care after the defeat in Massachusetts of the 60th Democratic vote in the United States Senate.

But by the time of this book's publication, many readers may feel differently. Obama came to the presidency determined to govern with calm reason, conciliation, and a willingness to compromise. Instead he was confronted with implacable -- and at times almost hysterical -- partisan opposition and a purposeful mobilization of demagogic reaction (laced, it seems clear, with a large amount of racial anxiety). For a time, Obama's calm and seemingly passive style of leadership served him -- and the country -- poorly. But in the aftermath of the January defeat in Massachusetts, he seemed to revive and began to lead his party with passion and tenacity, finally winning passage of the most important social program since the 1960s -- and perhaps since 1935. Republicans, despite their failure to block the bill, have insisted that the unpopularity of the legislation will demolish the Democratic majorities and permanently weaken Obama's presidency. But no one should underestimate Obama's determination and political skill. Seven months is a long time in electoral politics, and the Democrats -- if they are able to mobilize an effective defense of what is actually a very successful first 14 months -- may well do much better than many people now imagine in 2010.

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