Who Is Barack Obama?

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

by David Remnick
Knopf, 656 pp., $29.95
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…

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