Two Books Take A Look At Obama

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 16, 2010

Obama: a ‘natural’ president

On March 7, 1965, helmet-clad, truncheon-wielding Alabama state troopers greeted a line of 600 civil rights marchers - many of whom had gone to their knees in the “prayer for protection” position - at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. John Lewis, then a student and today a United States congressman, went to the hospital with a fractured skull. Dozens of other demonstrators also were injured. That day would go down in the history of the civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Hawaii-born Barack Hussein Obama - the child of two students, one black, one white at the University of Hawaii - took the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States and the nation’s first African-American leader. The largest crowd in inaugural history watched the ceremony in frigid winter Washington. Via television hundreds of millions watched it worldwide. “Barack Obama,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis on election eve, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

During the second week in June, 2010, less than 17 months after taking office, Obama’s job approval ratings stood at 47 percent. The prolonged battle over health care reform, a near double-digit unemployment rate, trillion-dollar deficits, the fouling of the Gulf of Mexico by an oil rig accident and a Republican Party speaking with a Southern-accented “no” have left many wondering whether Obama’s will be a one-term presidency.


Two recent books shed light on both Obama’s place in the history of black Americans and the state of his presidency. David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama takes Obama from the meeting of his parents in Hawaii to Inauguration Day, 2009. Jonathan Alter’s The Promise: President Obama, Year One looks, in sometimes excessive detail, at Obama’s successes and failures of 2009 and early 2010.

Both authors are veteran journalists: Remnick with The Washington Post and The New Yorker, Alter with Newsweek. Thus, both rely on interviews - in each instance, hundreds of them. Many quotations, particularly in Alter’s book, go unattributed. As any reporter knows, that is too often the only way to get those in government to talk candidly about their bosses.

The Bridge is the better book. Remnick succeeds in explaining, as thoroughly as anyone has to date, how “the Joshua generation” in the person of Barack Obama was able to reconnoiter in Hawaii, at colleges on the west and east coasts, in New York and Chicago, and then lead African Americans into the Promised Land. He also, as so many felt on election night 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009, symbolized the ability of Americans to transcend their history of racism.

Alter’s book is full of Obama’s people and their influence - people like colorful chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel who helped in the White House’s dealing with the Congress in which he had served, who opposed making health care reform the administration’s first priority, and who maintains a healthy disrespect for almost anyone, but particularly for “the purists who couldn’t see that something is almost always better than nothing.”

But the central figure is always Obama and his style. According to Alter, Bill Clinton “appreciated how natural a president he (Obama) turned out to be.” Clinton noted Obama’s skill at “lateral integration,” the “absorbing of the life and work experiences of others” in shaping policies and making decisions.

Alter argues that Obama possessed such skills because of his “fully integrated personality. Despite scars he might bear from childhood, he wasn’t usually working out ego issues in his relationships. This helped him to move quickly to take the best of what other people offered.”

But Alter always comes back to the promise: 502 of them made during Obama’s presidential campaign. In Obama’s first year in office, 91 of them have been kept, according to the St. Petersburgh Times. Progress has been made on another 285. Fourteen were broken; 87 were stalled.

But some promises were more important than others, notably to bring health care to all Americans. According to Alter, Obama “had won ugly - without a single Republican - but won all the same.”

Whatever happened next - however bad it got - Barack Obama was in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in terms of domestic achievement, a figure of history for reasons far beyond the color of his skin.”

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