Barack Obama: The opacity of hope

In "The Bridge," a biracial dreamer in post-Reagan America becomes the first black president. Then things get tough

Published April 6, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Scott Olson)
(Getty/Scott Olson)

Reading David Remnick's "The Bridge," it's astonishing all over again that we elected as president not just an African-American by the name of Barack Hussein Obama Jr., but a relative political newcomer we knew comparatively little about.

Throughout the book I found myself marveling at the blanks and partial stories about the president that Remnick fills in: about his parents, and whether "Kenya and Kansas" factored into the person he became. How was he shaped by Indonesia and Hawaii, Occidental College and Harvard Law School, idealism, left-wing theory and it-ain't-beanbag Chicago politics? When did Barry become Barack? Maybe most compelling: When did he become the Barack Obama, charismatic, charming, über-calm and confident; first among men; an inevitable future president?

Remnick ably answers all of those questions, though he qualifies the scope of his work by calling it "biographical journalism." (He also chases away all the insane conspiracy theories, not by confronting them directly, but with facts.) If you care about American politics, you have to read "The Bridge." One of its contributions is defining Obama as part of a demographic I hadn't thought much about: the post-civil rights movement do-gooder, leaving college and entering the workforce in the 1980s, under a depressing cloud of Reaganism (it happens to be my demographic as well). Watching the future president move through the dusty halls of well-intended but often ineffectual nonprofits, before (and even after) he finds his way to Harvard Law School, I had a new understanding of the way coming of political age in the '80s, caring about social justice but struggling to find a way to make change, shaped this particular historic change agent. Almost as much as being biracial, the pragmatic, incremental approach of post-movement left-liberal politics helps explain the cautious, conciliating president he's become.

"The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama" leaves some of his mysteries unsolved: a privacy and aloofness that also seem like loneliness (his mentor Jerry Kellman from his early Chicago days tells Remnick, "It was clear to me that he was never very long anywhere and he was different wherever he goes"); physical and emotional asceticism; an intellectual and political flexibility that makes it hard to pin him down (which some might call having it both ways); an idealistic belief in the power of listening, synthesis, compromise, that sometimes seems like an arrogant confidence in his own power to reconcile the irreconcilable.

One thing is clear: It's no accident that Obama beguiled the electorate (and maybe himself) by over-promising his ability to change Washington, end partisan gridlock and "part the waters," so to speak. He'd been practicing similar social jujitsu most of his life.

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Remnick tells many stories beyond Obama's in "The Bridge," several of them superbly. My favorite is his robust, admiring but not fawning portrait of the always sweet but often stereotyped Stanley Ann Dunham -- that "naïve" single mother, that racial dreamer. In "The Bridge," Obama's mother comes alive as a smart, stubborn idealist, a devoted but also practical globalist, a lifelong anthropology student who also held jobs at New York foundations and women's banking groups and did pioneering work in the now-mainstream field of microlending (as well as policy prep work for the United Nations' 1995 World Women's Conference in Beijing; in a time-travel cameo, Dunham had high hopes, Remnick tells us, for first lady Hillary Clinton's advocacy). She was a devoted mother who loved her son passionately, but nonetheless left him without her for large swatches of a sometimes-forlorn childhood. Clearly Dunham deserves her own biography.

Thanks to her restless father (she was named after him because he wanted a boy), Stanley Ann Dunham moved from Kansas to Texas to Seattle to Honolulu. Even in high school, she took up with an intellectual, politically aware crowd (at least for the late '50s). She wanted to go to the University of Washington or, ironically, the University of Chicago, but her parents made their still underage daughter come with them when they moved to Honolulu after she graduated, and enroll at the University of Hawaii.

By holding her close, they of course facilitated her first bold adventure: marrying a Kenyan scholar named Barack Hussein Obama (after conceiving a child with him) and having a biracial family. When Obama Sr. leaves her for Harvard, she bears her disappointment cheerfully, pushing her adorable black toddler around Honolulu in a stroller, continuing her studies, finally filing for divorce two years later -- then marrying her Indonesian husband, Lolo Soetoro.

Remnick fact-checks some of what Obama said about his mother in "Dreams From My Father" and while he doesn't find anything false, some of his judgments seem unfair, the product of the adolescent tendency to find parents inadequate and annoying. (He reveals that Dunham thought "Dreams" made her seem more naive about race than she was.) He talks at length to her mentor Alice Dewey (granddaughter of John), who can't say enough about Dunham's intellect, courage, tenacity, humor -- and love for her son and daughter Maya Soetoro. On the other hand, Dunham's offhand remark in Obama's adolescence, "I just don't see myself as white," showed even an adoring white mother's trouble helping her black son deal with race in America.

Remnick's portrait of Barack Hussein Obama Sr. is equally rich and nuanced. If it seems less groundbreaking, it's because we learned so much in "Dreams." Remnick traces Obama's Kenyan family back three generations, and shows that while the "goat-herder" label wasn't technically wrong, it underplayed the family's status; even higher-status Kenyans, as Obama Sr. and his father Onyango were, herded goats. (I'm not sure that fact makes "goat-herder" seem any less remarkable as a way to describe our president's comparatively high-status Kenyan family.) Obama Sr. comes off better and worse in "The Bridge" than in "Dreams." He's a more palpably impressive intellect and social thinker, whose critiques of post-independence Kenya and theories about the limits of socialism (yes, he was, egad, a socialist) were smart, nuanced, non-dogmatic and taken seriously within a narrow but important group of Kenyan intellectuals.

But he was a worse husband and father than even his critical son showed him to be, physically abusing at least one of his wives. It's clear that Obama lied to every wife about the women and children who'd come before and after, and felt no obligation to (and sadly, no apparent joy from) any of his kids. At many places in "The Bridge," friends talk about how the drive to escape the fate of his father, professionally and personally, and build a stable family, motivated Obama. It might be the only personal factor widely identified as inspiring and molding the future president.

Just as Remnick tells richer stories about Obama's parents than we've heard before, he also draws compelling mini-portraits about the two milieus that had the greatest influence on the future president: the brawling black Chicago he settled in, and the wan post-civil rights activist culture he came of age in. Longtime black community activist Timuel Black, a one-time Obama critic, told Remnick "our first African American president could only come from Chicago," and I can't argue. As Nicholas Lemann documented, it was "the promised land" for Southern blacks, and yet it was also a bitterly segregated city, with public housing ghettos that became a global symbol of the failures of the War on Poverty. From the early multiethnic coalition of Mayor Anton Cermak (who was shot in the chest while shaking hands with Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to the illusory racial promise of Richard Daley's early career (he co-opted two generations of black leaders with his machine), Chicago was a city that made false starts on getting race right many times. It was Daley's Chicago that defeated Martin Luther King Jr. when he tried to bring his civil rights movement north, and that also, with its violent 1968 convention, tore apart the post-civil rights Democratic Party, arguably for another 40 years, until Obama's election.

As bracing as Chicago was for Obama, the reality of post-civil rights activism was deflating. Remnick describes the anomie of the 1980s do-gooder, inspired by the '60s and '70s but let loose on the world in the age of Reagan. Civil rights and antiwar activists sat down in diners, broke laws on buses, marched, organized and went to jail; we marched through the dim corridors of low-rent nonprofits, into consumer advocacy, community organizing and advocacy journalism, with no evidence that our work really mattered. But if we missed the big movement party, Obama and his post-movement activist cohort also had a sense that our forebears mucked things up a little, helping set up the stifling Reagan reaction. From his earliest political moves Obama seemed determined to advance civil rights and social justice, while minimizing the '60s movements' divisiveness and avoiding their excesses.

So at Occidental College, he worked for divestment in South Africa; at Columbia he supported a nuclear freeze, two worthy but incremental, process-oriented reforms. He did a brief, frustrating post-Columbia stint at Ralph Nader's New York Public Interest Group (where I once interned, working to encourage recycling by supporting New York's "bottle bill"). Even a partly rewarding and surely formative job with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago mostly delivered defeat, and convinced him of the limits of community organizing.

Luckily Obama's frustrated post-movement idealism first intersected with hardball Chicago politics during the administration of Mayor Harold Washington, who may well have laid the groundwork for Obama's eventual political career. Washington was Chicago's first black mayor and its first progressive one. "It was the original 'Yes we can,'" veteran Chicago political consultant Don Rose told Remnick, and yes it was. (I lived in Chicago at the time.) Washington pulled together white liberals, Latinos and almost all Chicago African-Americans into a winning Democratic coalition. But he almost lost when many white Democrats (especially in Daley country) betrayed their party and voted for Republican nominee Bernie Epton. Washington prevailed, but spent his first term fighting "Council Wars" with entrenched white pols, and died too early in his second term to make a real difference. But he gave Obama the notion that electoral politics, not community organizing, was the pathway to change.

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His rapid ascent notwithstanding, Chicago politics was not an easy pathway for Obama. His biggest problem was race. Though it was taboo during the 2008 campaign to talk about doubts that Obama was "black enough" to unite African-Americans behind his candidacy, that's exactly what he had to prove to advance in Chicago, Remnick shows. His run for state Senate initially seemed blessed by an incumbent running for Congress and backing him, but when her congressional run failed, Alice Palmer expected Obama to step aside, after months of campaigning, and he did not. Former Harold Washington stalwarts and Palmer loyalists like Lu Palmer and Bob Starks didn't trust the Ivy League newcomer who urged blacks to ease up on "the politics of grievance." They told Obama to wait his turn. Instead he pushed Palmer out of the race with an old Chicago tradition: challenging the validity of signatures on her nominating petition. (It worked thanks to another Chicago tradition, in which Palmer's hastily gathered signatures included Superman, Pookie and Squirt.) Obama kept Palmer off the ballot, then took her seat with 82 percent of the vote.

Obama's blackness, or doubts about it, remained an issue. Bored in Springfield, anxious to advance, he challenged former Black Panther Rep. Bobby Rush for Congress in 2000, and the same activists who opposed his moving aside Alice Palmer went into overdrive. They accused moneyed white liberals of funding "an Obama project" to put their Ivy League puppet in power. "Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in black face in our community," another black state senator, Donne Trotter, told the Chicago Reader. Rush trounced Obama, and the president would later tell Remnick, "I was completely mortified and humiliated, and felt terrible."

But he got up fairly quickly, and tried to work on the issues that held him back. He learned to drop some of his "twenty-five cent words" and became bilingual, sometimes able to sound like a preacher, or at least a brother, in his black world, and like an impressive Ivy Leaguer in his white world. His marriage to Michelle Robinson had anchored him psychologically as well as culturally. He had the stable family he'd yearned for, and a partner who called him on his self-importance. She played an invaluable role in the 2008 campaign, as his surrogate and frequent liaison to women and to the black community. "I don't think Obama could have been elected president if he had married a white woman," Princeton political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell told Remnick. "Had he married a white woman, he would have signaled that he had chosen whiteness, a consistent visual reminder that he was not on the African-American side. Michelle anchored him. Part of what we as African-Americans like about Barack is the visual image of him in the White House, and it would have been stunningly different without Michelle and those brown-skinned girls."

I agree with Harris-Lacewell, but paradoxically, I'd also argue that our first black president probably had to be half-white. Obama's skills at reaching white voters are unrivaled in a black politician, and they come from a place of ease and intimacy, born of being raised by his mother's family. In "Dreams" he writes of his discomfort when black friends would talk about "how white people will do you," or with the pre-Mecca Malcolm X who raged against the white blood in his veins. The power of Obama' March 2008 speech on race, at the campaign's lowest point, when Rev. Jeremiah Wright's ranting about whites and about America became public, was its amazing compassion for both sides of America's racial narrative.

Obama pulled off a rare balancing act, listing the reasons blacks are legitimately angry at the persistence of discrimination, while also noting that "most working- and middle-class whites ... worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor ... [T]o wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding." (Persistent Obama critic Cornel West would later blast the speech to Remnick -- "I can understand that, the white moderates need that little massage and so on, but it has nothing to do with the truth, at all.")

Clearly his cultural flexibility was an asset to Obama throughout his political career. A fellow Chicago organizer, John Owens, noted his rapport with whites early on. "He was concerned about being fair about whites as well as about blacks, whereas the average African-American who grows up in the community, the concern with being fair is usually with your own ... He was able to have stronger relationships with whites than the average African-American." Tribune reporter Eric Zorn took that notion even further, watching Obama run for U.S. Senate a decade later: "Obama was somehow all about validating you. He was radiating the sense that 'You're the kind of guy who can accept a black guy as a senator.' He made white people feel better about themselves for liking him." You could see that same dynamic at work in the presidential campaign, as well. Electing Obama became a route by which white Americans could prove their own goodness and black Americans could claim full citizenship. Everyone (except a racist fringe) loved the image of those brown-skinned girls in the White House.

Remnick zeroes in on the role of race in the two-year presidential campaign, and he does an impossibly fair job. As someone who defended the Clintons more than once from charges they were running a racist campaign, I saw clearly in Remnick's book the way the steady accretion of what defenders would term "slips of the tongue" or "inartfully worded" remarks appeared to betray a sense of racial superiority and entitlement, if not racism, to Obama supporters. But Remnick also shows, and not without sympathy, the Clinton team's shock and bitterness that Bill and Hillary Clinton's long career of work for racial justice meant nothing; they were never given the benefit of the doubt when it came to racially questionable campaign missteps.

Remnick doesn't name it directly, but he describes a kind of racial force-field that surrounded Obama, with which black supporters and their white allies pushed back at any slight that seemed racial, with the full moral force of the civil rights cause. (He doesn't dwell on it, but Remnick experienced that force-field personally, when the Obama campaign and its supporters lashed out at a brilliant New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt, sending up right-wing lies about the Obamas: Michelle was basically Angela Davis, armed and angry, Obama was dressed as a Muslim, while the American flag blazed in an Oval Office fireplace. Thousands of angry readers wrote to Remnick, he notes in the book, concerned the cartoon validated rather than mocked the fringe rumors.)

Still, even at one of the Clinton campaign's lowest moments -- when Geraldine Ferraro angrily, ahistorically and unapologetically insisted, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is" -- Obama advisor Mona Sutphen told Remnick that many in the campaign in fact also believed race was helping Obama more than it was hurting him. "He is the embodiment of American diversity. In the end, that played really well for him," Sutphen explained. Remnick himself doesn't rule on that question either way, but he notes that before the election, campaign pollsters feared a "Bradley effect" -- where whites say they'll vote for the black candidate, but then don't – but after they were wondering about a "Palmer effect" or a "Huxtable effect," in which the popularity of black characters like "24's" David Palmer and the entire "Cosby Show" made Obama's race less a disadvantage than an asset for many voters.

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Even as Remnick interviews literally hundreds of Obama associates and intimates, and charts his political development from his Occidental College work on divestment through the 2008 presidential campaign, he sometimes seems to strain to explain the secret to Obama's stunning rise. When did Barry Obama become Barack Obama, superhero?

At one point, he more or less asks Obama when he transformed himself from an amiable average student into the man who'd become the Harvard Law Review's first black president, and ours. Obama's answer is weirdly unsatisfying, disembodied and impersonal, like he's narrating someone else's story:

I will tell you that I think I had a hunger to shape the world in some way, to make the world a better place, that was triggered around the time that I transferred from Occidental to Columbia. So there's a phase, which I wrote about in my first book, where, for whatever reason, a whole bunch of stuff that had been inside me -- questions of identity, questions of purpose, questions of, not just race, but also the international nature of my upbringing -- all those things started converging in some way. And so there's this period of time when I move to New York and go to Columbia, where I pull in and wrestle with that stuff, and do a lot of writing and a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and a lot of walking through Central Park. And somehow I emerge on the other side of that ready and eager to take a chance in what is a pretty unlikely venture, moving to Chicago and becoming an organizer. So I would say that's a moment in which I gain a seriousness of purpose that I had lacked before. Now, whether it was just a matter of, you know, me hitting a certain age where people start getting a little more serious -- whether it was a combination of factors -- my father dying, me realizing I had never known him, me moving from Hawaii to a place like New York that stimulates a lot of new ideas -- you know, it's hard to say what exactly prompted that.

But if Remnick can't put his finger on exactly what made Obama, you know, Obama, it's obvious that his very inability to be defined or pinned down has been a huge factor in his ascent. Along with being biracial, Obama's capacity to be many people, depending on his context, served him well politically. So did his remarkable and related ability to work with Republicans throughout his career (until now). In the Harvard Law Review election, conservatives like Bush veteran Brad Berenson wound up backing Obama because "there was a general sense that he didn't think we were evil people, only misguided people, and he would credit us for good faith and intelligence." Teaching at University of Chicago Law School, he made his students read books by Shelby Steele; he was friendly with conservative federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner, who also taught there. In Springfield, he got along better with some Republicans than with his black Chicago Democratic antagonists.

Obama's commitment to synthesis and conciliation, even with Republicans, defined his presidential campaign. In my opinion (Remnick doesn't quite say this) so did his slightly not-there quality: Supporters could love their own Obama, whether the one in the Shepard Fairey posters and songs, or the guy who talked about his white family's "Kansas values," praised Ronald Reagan, and reached out to make Republicans "Obamacans."

Reaching the end of "The Bridge," though, I couldn't help wondering how much the very qualities that made Obama our first black president might hinder his ability to be a supremely effective one. With a big assist from the lame McCain-Palin campaign and a crashing economy, Obama got voters to take a gamble on an inspiring political neophyte they knew little about, compared to the Clintons and Bushes, Reagan and Nixon, whose biographies had been combed for decades before they campaigned for the White House. Now, just as admirers projected their own dreamy vision of the Obama Messiah during the campaign, his crazier critics seem to be projecting a bizarro-version, an Obama Tyrant, who's Hitler, Stalin or the murderous Joker from Batman. I haven't seen a Shepard Fairey-style poster with Obama sporting a Hitler mustache, but I bet there's one out there.

Likewise, Obama's great talent for outreach and compromise has been at least temporarily rendered useless by organized obstinacy among Republicans in Congress. It's too early in his presidency to say that condition is permanent, but there are no signs of change on the horizon. Watching the president reach out to Republicans again and again, after multiple rebuffs, it's hard not to ask if synthesis and compromise itself is a core value for Obama, rather than a means to an end: legislative accomplishments that deliver on his promises. Or is it a means to a different end: specifically, his own power and career. I don't think it's cheating to say Obama's compromising ways have represented all of those things.

Finishing Remnick's book as Obama signed healthcare reform into law, I wondered if I'd been too hard on him all year long, and whether the political suppleness Remnick describes is in fact supreme political shrewdness. Despite its flaws, the bill was a huge historic achievement. Then, as I watched Obama start "negotiating" an energy bill by surrendering offshore drilling to Republicans, getting nothing in exchange; as a federal appeals court again found illegal the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program that Obama flip-flopped to support; I thought again about the limits of the president's approach.

Obama has mostly defined the politically possible by what he can accomplish. If the skinny black kid with the big ears and the funny name can make all this happen, it's clearly at the outside limits of the possible -- and well within the boundaries of social good. I find myself wishing Obama had hit a few more speed bumps along his path to power, in order to learn the limits of his analysis (or at least to compromise after negotiation begins). But "The Bridge" makes clear Obama has the smarts to learn from his mistakes and course-correct. I think anyone who bets against this president having two terms to learn the limits of what's politically possible is betting against history.

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By Joan Walsh

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