Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Being a Senator wasn't enough. But for what end?

I got really tired of seeing the President's mug stare out at me while I worked my way through David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. It's pretty amazing that Remnick could find 650 some pages worth of somewhat novel material about a guy who had written his own autobiography at 30 (Dreams from My Father) and a subsequent 380 page book about his ideas (Audacity of Hope). But Remnick (the editor of The New Yorker) has proved this more than possible. The Prez is a fascinating figure, a master manipulator of the political uses of his own life story -- and still there was much more for a diligent reporter to bring to light.

Remnick obviously worked at collecting the research for this book; he seems to have interviewed hundreds of people who encountered Obama in various settings. Not all were complimentary; one Chicago detractor, Maria Warren, concluded years before he ran for President:

"I've never heard him say anything new or earthshaking or support anything would require the courage of his convictions."

People who think of themselves as too cosmopolitan to be swept up in popular enthusiasms love Obama's Olympian aloofness; here's the high brow lawyer Cass Sunstein weighing in about the man he admires:

"I think with Obama it's more like [Judge] Learned Hand when he said 'the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.' Obama takes that really seriously. ...I can't think of an American politician who has thought that way, ever."

The most important new thing I learned from this book was that Obama apparently hated being a Senator. He couldn't do anything. Yet apparently he had something he wanted to do with executive power,

Greg Sargent recently highlighted a 2009 anecdote from Jonathan Alter's new book on the President (these books will keep on coming) that accords perfectly with Remnick's take. Obama was being urged to scale back the health insurance reform.

"This is about whether we're going to get big things done," Obama said. "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms." Rahm then asked Obama if he still felt lucky.

"My name is Barack Hussein Obama and I'm sitting here," Obama answered. "So yeah, I'm feeling pretty lucky."

Yet this politician, so eager for accomplishment, seemingly remains happy to settle for the presently possible in most policy arenas, rather than seeking to stretch the imaginable. Have all those years of settling for the imperfect scrubbed away any aspiration to truly make a difference?

Therein lies deep disappointment for many who worked to elect him. Remnick observes this, though a person occupying his elite position can not admit to sharing the little people's angst.

Ever since the assassination of King, in April, 1998, and of Robert Kennedy, two months later, the liberal constituencies of America had been waiting for a savior figure. Barack Obama proposed himself. In the eyes of his supporters, he was a promise in a bleak landscape; he possessed an inspirational intelligence and an evident competence when the country had despaired of a reckless and aggressively incurious President; he possessed a worldliness at a time when Americans could sense so many rejecting, even hating, them; he was an embodiment of multi-ethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority. This was the promise of his campaign, its reality or vain romance, depending on your view.

If you want to puzzle away at who this man is who we've put in office, Remnick's book is great fun. If your focus is on getting something done to correct the country's course, focusing on fighting for policies is probably more useful. Obama is likely to remain an artfully constructed blank space; what we need can more easily be discerned by looking around us and ignoring him.

1 comment:

hleighh said...

Oh what a conclusion! It breaks my heart... but it feels spot-on.
It reminds me of Katha Pollitt's essay "Kept Illusions" on progressive and feminist disillusionment with Clinton ... why why why do we keep falling for the "savior-leader" myth? Imagining that a leader can go to Washington and actually lead?