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Who Is Barack Obama?

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

by David Remnick
Knopf, 656 pp., $29.95
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Alex Wong/Getty Images
Barack Obama at a march to commemorate the 1965 Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama, March 4, 2007

In the weeks before he signed landmark health reform into law in March, our forty-fourth president was subjected to a process of relentless shrinkage. That’s to say he was being cut down to size, not only by cable TV and radio talk show screamers of the apoplectic right but by many in the twittering classes who’d hailed his victory just a year earlier as “transformative.” His signature initiatives seemed to have stalled and blame was being assigned less to the determined naysaying of congressional Republicans than to his own cool, deliberative nature. The dour Mitch McConnell, stubbornness personified, seemed to be playing him for a patsy. The Chinese, Iranians, and Israelis were showing that they too considered him soft, and bankers once again were salting away obscene bonuses while foreclosures continued to spread. Anyone could see that Guantánamo was still in business as a prison, that the public option had fallen out of the health care reform plan, which all too obviously seemed headed for oblivion. And if anyone thought the election of an African-American president would ease the way for African-Americans subsisting outside the labor market in a period of soaring unemploy- ment, a year’s experience provided a bleak corrective. What, then, had been transformed?

If Barack Obama had been a stock instead of a president with three years to go in the first of what could be two terms, the market indices on cable news and in the blogosphere seemed to suggest that it was time to sell him short. He’d wasted a year, didn’t grasp that governing was different from campaigning, had no fight in him, was on his way to reprising Jimmy Carter. That was the conventional wisdom forming around him early this year.

What the country really needed was someone like Lyndon Johnson, we were regularly instructed by writers too young to have any memory of LBJ, someone who knew how to “twist arms.” The theme had gone viral on the Internet by the time it reached the letters column of The New York Times print edition. We need a leader who “does whatever it takes to get the public and Congress to follow him,” a reader in Portland, Oregon, wrote. Barack Obama, the letter writer grumbled, was “temperamentally incapable of such behavior.”

One of the big complaints was that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.” In the digital era, could a worse fate befall a president? No matter who said this first, it soon seemed that everyone and his brother was saying it. In a demonstration of how swiftly a “narrative” can form and proliferate, a recent Google search turned up tens of thousands of entries for blogs and “repurposed” articles in the cyberspace void echoing this specimen of instantaneous groupthink, tagged by the words “lost control of the narrative.” Perhaps a few of them paused to question what the so-called “narrative” of the moment, any moment, actually amounts to (or even how the academic concept “narrative” had crept into the reporting of stories), or how any president could be expected to “control” it for even a few hours. Lyndon Johnson and his pre-digital, pre-cable, pre-Fox successors could always command an audience by scheduling an Oval Office speech. The three networks would grumble but give him the time and a huge chunk of the national audience would be captured on their Barcaloungers and sofas. Ah, those were the days.

With the vast changes in the way news and commentary are now circulated and consumed, that format is seldom effective, seldom tried. Barring a real or imagined national emergency—for instance, when LBJ announced that there had been a second attack on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin or, more recently, George W. Bush claimed that there was proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the hungry “narrative” beast can seldom be commanded; inherently unstable, on the lookout for prey, it’s always foraging. Put another way, both technology and shameful presidential precedents have undermined a president’s ability to write his own narrative.

In this setting, David Remnick’s energetic entry into the Obama biography sweepstakes is a welcome reminder that the current occupant of the White House may have a broader, more durable sense of narrative than the pack of bloggers who considered him a slow learner (until, with the health reform victory, they flipped and momentarily allowed themselves to wonder whether he’d finally turned a corner and might now be ready to wield power at home and abroad). Not only had Obama actually supplied the urtext of his campaign by writing Dreams from My Father, the story of his antecedents and life, he also managed to turn his biracial origins into an advantage, offering himself, in Remnick’s words, as “an embodiment of multi-ethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority.” He was his own best metaphor and in that sense, he mostly controlled the story of the campaign. This was despite the furor over his chosen preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and the media chorus suggesting that race would be the undoing of his candidacy, first because he was not black enough, then because he was too black.

No one can pin down exactly when the young Obama first thought seriously of running for president. Remnick shows that the ambition—he writes aptly of Obama’s “serene ambition”—had probably lodged itself in his soul before he first threw himself into a race for a seat in Illinois’s less than august State Senate in September 1995. The question became insistent almost as soon as he entered the US Senate in 2005, though he was then only ninety-ninth in seniority. “Obama,” Remnick writes, “had many qualities; he would have to work at modesty.”

In politics, it now seems, narrative can lose value faster than a new car. So one is grateful to be brought back to the gleaming 2008 Obama model in the second year of the Obama presidency, if only because it’s a reminder that the candidate’s ambition wasn’t just for himself but for the healing he thought he could bring to the country; and because it’s in such stark contrast with the narratives not of his own design that have since thickened around him—those of well-wishers who would turn him into LBJ and those of enemies who continue to suggest that there’s something insidiously un-American about him. What could that exotic ingredient be? For at least some members of the aroused Tea Party vanguard, it has to be race. However the Obama presidency turns out, it’s all too obvious already that it’s unlikely to be remembered as an era of good feelings in which the partisan divide was healed as the candidate optimistically promised.

What Remnick’s portrayal of Obama’s political evolution makes clear is that the promise was more than a calculated choice, a campaign pose. It was intrinsic to his character and recognized as such early on. As far back as Harvard Law School, he stood out for “his way of absorbing and synthesizing the arguments of others,” for his “earnest, consensus-seeking style,” for an “open-mindedness [that] seemed strange even to his friends.” Later on, when as an obscure state legislator he sat in on a seminar at the Kennedy School, the seminar’s leader, Robert Putnam, was struck by Obama’s ability “to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch.”

It’s a refrain to which Remnick regularly returns. “Conciliation [is Obama’s] default mode,” he writes, “the dominant strain of his political personality.” The 43 percent of whites who voted for the first African-American president presumably recognized this quality. Its effect on an irreconcilable portion of the 55 percent of whites who voted against him is suggested by the fury of the Tea Party activists. That’s a paradox yet to be resolved. The very qualities of thoughtfulness and patience that made Obama’s election seem such a hopeful harbinger now make him vulnerable to charges of weakness from both flanks of the political divide. It’s who he is. It has something to do with why he is where he is. And in the short term at least, it doesn’t play conspicuously well in the media echo chamber, which is always spoiling for a fight, doesn’t reward prudence, and has no time for ambiguity.

History is very much what Remnick is about, what he seeks to wrestle with here. A voracious reporter of ready wit, he has always shown an uncommon sensitivity to larger historical events. That was one of the distinguishing strengths of Lenin’s Tomb, his Pulitzer-winning account of the collapse of Soviet communism, and one of the reasons it still reads well after seventeen years. Here he seeks to distill the deeper meanings of the improbable 2008 election by setting it in the context of the American civil rights movement.

The “bridge” of his title, in its first iteration, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, on March 7, 1965—a date henceforth remembered as “Bloody Sunday”—Governor George Wallace’s state troopers set upon a column of peaceful civil rights marchers intent on going all the way to Montgomery, the capital. The troopers, backed by a deputized white mob, used tear gas and nightsticks as they tore into the nonresisting marchers. Forty-two years later Barack Obama spoke in Selma to commemorate that event, in what became his first face-off with the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. The occasion was freighted with layers of meaning, past and future. What it signifies as an opening set piece for Remnick’s book is Obama’s emergence as a candidate who “just might be [the] culmination” of “a narrative of moral and political progress.”

Here Remnick seems to be referring to the candidate’s self-presentation. The “just might be” can be read as authorial distancing. By election night, when a vast crowd gathers in Chicago’s Grant Park for a victory celebration, Remnick is ready to call a time-out from distancing. “A historical bridge had been crossed,” he writes exultantly. He celebrates as a writer as well as a citizen. That bridge can now carry the full weight of the story he means to tell. “I could think of only a few comparable days or nights in my life as a reporter,” Remnick tells us, jumping from the wings and onto the stage to draw comparisons to East Berlin and Prague in 1989, Moscow in 1991. Change had come to America, he concludes that chapter, adding, “It was about damned time.” (The line is carried over from Remnick’s perfectly timed article “The Joshua Generation”—a relatively svelte prototype for this fat book—which appeared in The New Yorker days after the election.)

Any Obama voter swept up in the emotions of that night will recognize the sentiment. But more than a year later, it’s fair to ask: What was the change exactly and when did it occur? The most arresting answer to that question in this book somewhat undercuts the bridge metaphor of the title. It comes in the last chapter from the book’s subject:

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