Last week, a good friend urged me to read The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
, a new book by New Yorker
Editor David Remnick. At 586 pages, it is the most thorough and exhaustive biography of Obama yet written – giving readers an encyclopedic background of our current President. As an ex-Chicagoan who lived three doors down from Obama when he first ran for office, I read the book with keen interest. It made me realize how little I knew the guy, and that for years I had drawn conclusions about him based on what I know of Hyde Park politics. Obama’s a liberal guy, and you can’t help loving his obvious intellect and fascinating background. But he has fallen short of our expectations as President because he is aloof – refusing to get worked up about things when outrage is warranted, and wanting to play fair with conservatives who respond only to fear. That personality served him well at the Harvard Law Review and teaching at the University of Chicago, but not when governing the country.
At this point, Barack Obama’s life story is common knowledge. We all know about his Kenyan father and Kansan mother, a childhood in Hawaii, three years as a community organizer in Chicago, the Harvard Law Review, the Illinois State Senate and U.S. Senate, his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and an historic presidential campaign that renewed our faith in America. But what does Obama believe in? Harder to tell, and progressives – after 40 awful years of conservative dominance – had much to hope for.
When I reviewed the Audacity of Hope
back in January 2007, I wondered if he was really a “fighter” – and I quoted Obama admitting that he is “not somebody who gets real worked up about things.” Remnick’s book further confirms this – replete with anecdotes and observations that Obama keeps his cool, but in a way that is aloof and detached. It’s a weird dichotomy – his oratory inspires activists, but he doesn’t really share their passion.
The book suggests that he got this from his mother – an anthropologist who liked to study religions without ever joining a church, and an idealist on race that Obama felt was naïve. “When Obama describes his mother as a singular influence,” writes Remnick, “someone directed towards public service and the improvement of the lives of the poor but without an emphasis on ideology, this was the sort of work he is referring to.” He then goes on to argue Obama became like his mother, “a maverick who wanted to change to the world.”
You can’t help liking Obama as you read details in the book, because he shares our progressive goals and values. Why else did he take a job as a community organizer after college, while Hillary Clinton turned down an offer to work for Saul Alinsky? And he’s a high-minded intellectual who makes deliberative and thoughtful decisions. In a lot of ways, he was the antithesis of George W. Bush – and Remnick argues that Obama would not have won the White House if we had not gone through the excesses of Bush-Cheney.
But the problem is that America today needs an FDR figure to get us out of this mess. Obama would never give the kind of speech
FDR gave in 1936, who “welcomed the hatred” of rich corporations – for Obama has always been about making those who disagree with him comfortable. For example, he only won the Presidency of the Harvard Law Review – after conservative students voted in bloc for him because he was as a “reasonable” liberal who would not sideline them. Dealing with Republicans in Congress, however, was a wholly different ballgame that I don’t believe Professor Obama was prepared to understand or appreciate.
When Obama first hit the national stage with his Convention speech in Boston, I was excited because
he was a politician from Hyde Park. We only lived in the same apartment complex for a few years, and I moved to California before his career really took hold. But I’ve always been proud to be from Hyde Park – a neighborhood of independent Democrats who took on the Daley machine. Growing up, I was told Hyde Park is a liberal cocoon “too different” from the rest of America. Now, my old state senator was going to be the next President.
Over the years, I had assumed that Obama was a Hyde Park politician in the fine tradition of Paul Douglas, Leon Despres or a Harold Washington. In fact, many of the same people in our neighborhood who were with Obama from the beginning had worked for those kinds of candidates – and he maintained their support as he ran for President. But at one critical passage in the book, Remnick points out how Obama was different:
Obama understood from the start of his political career that a purist, an anti-machine politician like the Hyde Park Alderman Leon Despres, might gain a stronger foothold on the path to Heaven but would never advance far on the path to power. Obama could borrow from the cadences of King, he could advertise his genuine admiration for the civil rights movement, but he was a politician – not the leader of a movement. To be a successful politician you had to make compromises along the way. Obama rarely failed to make them.
One of the compromises he made was to forge a close relationship with Emil Jones – the Democratic Senate leader in Springfield and a Chicago machine hack. Obama displayed blatant ambition throughout the book. After Democrats won control of the legislature in 2002, he approached Jones about making him the next U.S. Senator. He won a crowded Senate primary in 2004 by running on his Hyde Park credentials (which included coming out against the Iraq War), but Obama had other support that brought him where he is.
In the end, Obama is a liberal politician who wants to do good – but he’s an unemotional pragmatist who assesses what he believes to be possible. And what he views as possible is of his own making. He’s an academic who solicits the advice and trust of people with very different political views. But as President, such an approach means empowering the right-wing forces who want him to fail. And he has not used his bully pulpit as President to arouse anger at those who have obstructed him, because he just doesn’t get worked up.
Which is why this week, the progressives who had been so inspired by Obama to get involved in electoral politics had to work around him – defeating Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and challenging Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. In other words, they had to save the Democratic Party from itself – because Professor Obama was not up to the task.