Young Barry Wins

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Lisa Jack/Contour by Getty Images
Barack Obama posing for the camera during his freshman year at Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1980

A white friend told me recently that he heard someone complain that he’d voted for the black guy last time around, did he have to do it again—as if Obama’s election had been a noble experiment we weren’t ready for. Only the big boys can deal with the global economy, so hand the keypad to the White House back to its rightful class of occupants, those big boys who helped to make the mess in the first place. President Obama got little credit from Wall Street for bailing out the financial system. Imagine the criticism had he not or had he tried to institute even more reform at that moment. It was an early display of his administration’s hope to lead by consensus.

Obama’s hold on the middle ground frustrates old liberals and engaged youth. But it remains one of his great assets that the Republicans can’t shove or provoke him from the middle ground. His entrenchment is perhaps why his opponents cannot make him lose his cool, his own understated black swagger. Think of the fierce need among Republican congressmen to try to insult him as chief executive. More so than his record, the accomplishments of his first term, his cool is his campaign’s best remedy for the negative messages that will get under the floorboards of the nation’s consciousness, placed there by Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.

No matter what, the Republicans are promising to bring Obama’s first term to a close with another budget crisis. The first term is becoming the story, the referendum. Meanwhile, Obama’s fight for a second term has had the curious effect of making books about his rise somewhat passé. We are familiar with the exoticism of his story: the absent African father; the young white anthropologist mother in Indonesia; the basketball team in Hawaii. We know about Chicago, the discovery of the black community and the future First Lady. YouTube has him when at Harvard. And then that Speech. Moreover, we know much of this from Obama himself. Dreams from My Father is justly famous.

Yet David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole.

As with men of destiny, Obama’s story begins long before he was born, and so Maraniss opens with the suicide of the president’s maternal great-grandmother…


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