Obama: a man of no substance

He launched his political career in 1995 with a candid memoir, and kickstarted his presidential bid with a ‘political treatise’ stuffed with embarrassing personal anecdotes. Obama takes the politics of personality to a new low.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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It’s easy to forget that only five months ago the chances of Barack Obama becoming president were pretty slim.

At the beginning of the year, Obama trailed Hillary Clinton in the contest for the Democratic Party nomination by what appeared to be an unsurpassable margin: in the first week of January 2008 he received only 24 per cent of support in national polls, versus 44 per cent for Clinton. But in a matter of weeks – by mid-February – Obama had caught Clinton, and soon after he grabbed the lead. Today he is ahead by 10 percentage points over Clinton, and with a majority of pledged delegates he is almost certain to win the nomination. Moreover, polls show Obama leads John McCain and thus is now the frontrunner to be the next President of the United States (1).

Even saying that Obama is the frontrunner is something of an understatement. For many, he is believed to be a politician unlike any other in recent memory. He is pathbreaking, holding out the possibility of being the first black president. While politics is often perceived to be a dull affair, Obama is widely talked about in terms of his personal qualities, especially how cool he is – good-looking, smooth, self-assured, hip, and with a wry sense of humour. And he doesn’t just win votes, he attracts tens of thousands to his rockstar-like rallies. In short, he’s not just a candidate, he’s a phenomenon.

Obama’s campaign is very much run on the basis of who he ‘is’, his personal story, more than any plans on how he would lead the country. In that regard, Obama has been able carefully to craft his public image by writing two mega-bestselling books, Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006), both of which are highly personal. And it appears he has used his books to establish a connection with supporters; Obama says people ‘feel they know me through my books’ (2).

Previous candidates for president have presented their biography and tried to spin it to their advantage, but few have focused so much on their own personal background. For example, John F Kennedy, with whom Obama is often compared, wrote Profiles in Courage (1956) before he was elected, but that book was primarily about other politicians who took a stand, rather than himself (even though Kennedy was obviously hoping readers would place him in a similar light).

* * *

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the fact that Obama comes from a multi-racial and multi-national background. He was born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. His parents separated when he was two years old. His mother married a student from Indonesia, and at age six the family moved to that country. Four years later he returned to Hawaii and was raised primarily by his maternal grandparents.

After graduating high school, he went on to university, first Occidental College in Los Angeles, before transferring to Columbia University in New York, where he majored in political science. Graduating in 1983, he spent two years working in New York before moving to Chicago to become a community organiser in a poor, predominantly black section of the South Side. Three years later, he was accepted into Harvard Law School.

At Harvard he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, the first person of any African-American heritage to reach that prestigious position. His appointment led to media profiles, and a publisher approached him to write a book.

That book became Dreams from My Father. It is a memoir, the story of Obama’s life up until his entry to Harvard. Obama’s tale is ‘a personal, interior journey – a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American’. One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is its honesty; he is constantly questioning his motives. And it has been rightly praised for its literary style.

But before the story gets rolling, Obama tells us what the book is not – a political treatise. In the introduction, Obama notes that he was originally going to write about the current state of race relations, but he found that ‘all my well-ordered theories seemed insubstantial and premature’ and so instead he turned to a personal memoir. It is interesting to note that this will become a characteristic of Obama: his preference to talk about his personal life, rather than ideas.

Obama writes of his inner turmoil as a youth, which he traces to his feeling ‘between worlds’ of white and black. Friends from those days say they did not realise he was tortured, as he appeared well-adjusted (3). Disaffected as a teenager, Obama tells of how he drifted into drug use: ‘Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.’ Obama says he ‘got high for… something that could push the questions of who I was out of my mind’. A friend at Occidental College prods him to snap out of it and become less self-centred, and Obama learns that ‘you might be locked into a world not of your own making… but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.’

Moving to New York, Obama entered a new phase, with new questions. ‘I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, or even where I would live.’ He writes about hanging out with ‘Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets’ and attending ‘socialist conferences’. Attending a talk by Kwame Toure, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC and the Black Panthers, he finds Marxists of various stripes shouting at one another, as the meeting descends into chaos. Obama says it ‘was like a bad dream’ and concludes in despair that ‘the movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments. Every path to change was well-trodden, every strategy exhausted. And with each defeat, even those with the best intentions could end up further and further away from the struggles of those they purported to serve.’ It was this sense that the rhetoric of theoretical struggle rang hollow in a period of defeat that seems to have encouraged Obama’s distrust of abstractions and generalisations.

After graduation, Obama decides to get a job ‘closer to the streets’, to become a ‘community organiser’. He admits that he does not have a fully thought-out logic for doing so, and is more inspired by ‘romantic images’ of the civil rights movement than ‘slogans or theories I discovered in books’. He invests organising with the ‘promise of redemption’. He moves to Chicago to work in a poor housing project, helping residents petition for certain basic amenities. He suffers a number of setbacks and disillusions, but manages a few small victories. Although he no doubt believed that, through community organising, he was engaged in a type of political activity, he provides very little discussion of his political thoughts or objectives. His departure for law school seems to suggest that he had reached an impasse. The only political legacy seems to be a fascination and admiration for the respect that Harold Washington, the black mayor of Chicago, generated among the black people in the city.

In the final section of Dreams from My Father, Obama travels to Kenya, where he visits relatives. He had had little contact with his father – only a single visit in Hawaii when he was 10 years old, and occasional letters – and his father’s death means that Barack will not be able to truly know him. In Kenya he learns that his image of his father was part-myth; that in fact his father was haughty, prone to drink, and after a career setback, somewhat pitiful. It is a coming-of-age story, as Obama realises he must go beyond his father and be his own man.

At the end we are not sure if Obama has fully resolved his issues of identity, but we sense that he has come to enough of a reconciliation that he can move on. Overall, the message seems quite pessimistic, in that it does not seem there is much hope for blacks and whites transcending race; instead race is something to be endured. And while it may seem obvious that someone like Obama, of mixed racial background, would face challenges, it seems that the author, for all the self-consciousness he exhibits, fails to ask: why is identity the key question? As it happens, Obama’s book was published at a time when many prior struggles against oppression, including civil rights, had dissolved into identity politics. Furthermore, the exploration of personal issues (including memoir writing) had gained in importance relative to collective movements.

It is often remarked that Dreams from My Father was written before Obama had entered politics, and that explains its candour. Strictly speaking, that’s true – he had not yet run for elected office. But it’s clear that he was preparing for an entry into the political realm as he was writing it. The press release announcing his Harvard editorship stated that Obama had ‘not ruled out’ a career in politics. Classmates say he spoke about becoming mayor of Chicago some day.

In 1991, fresh out of law school, Obama met with Judson H Minor, partner in a civil rights law firm and a former adviser to Harold Washington. Obama told Minor he was interested in learning from him more about the Chicago political landscape; he was already planning to run for office (4). Two years later Obama joined Minor’s firm. During those years Obama also led a voter registration drive and taught constitutional law.

In 1995, four years after signing the book deal, Obama published Dreams. Later that same year he announced his candidacy for the Illinois state senate. In other words, while writing his book he was preparing the ground to enter politics, and Dreams would be the way he would introduce himself to voters. It is revealing that he would choose a memoir as his calling card. Also, he must have known that the book’s carefree style, with disclosures about drug-taking, would be political fodder in his future. It seems he anticipated that he would be taken as more of a real, authentic guy, and not a typical politician, if he was candid.

* * *

As it happens, the book only sold modestly, but Obama was successful in winning the seat in 1996. In the state senate, Obama was clearly ambitious to get ahead, and, in turn, the Democratic leadership identified him as someone with a future. He became the protégé of Emil Jones Jr, the Democratic leader of the state senate, and he was put in prime position to be the one who had his name on the higher-profile bills, including his signature legislation: a ban on gifts from lobbyists and the personal use of campaign money by state elected officials.

Obama would end up serving eight years in the state legislature – his longest tenure in one role. But he had tried to move on sooner: only three years into the position he sought to move up to the national level. In 2000, he ran for the Democratic nomination for the US House of Representatives, against a popular black incumbent, Bobby Rush. Many politicos thought this was a sign of excessive ambition and impatience, and, as it happens, he was crushed by a two-to-one margin. This was Obama’s nadir: it appeared he might be relegated to a life in the unglamorous world of state politics, or drop out of politics altogether.

But, as a sign of his determination to advance, Obama pressed on. He assessed that he lost because he lacked a base of support that was wide and deep enough to win at the national level. He went on a mission to build bridges with different sections of the Illinois political elite. In doing so, many say he dropped his standard liberal viewpoints and became a nuanced ‘centrist’. As the New York Times put it: ‘He moved from his leftist Hyde Park base to more centrist circles; he forged early alliances with the good-government reform crowd only to be embraced later by the city’s all-powerful Democratic bosses; he railed against pork-barrel politics but engaged in it when needed; and he empathised with the views of his Palestinian friends before adroitly courting the city’s politically potent Jewish community.’ He developed an approach of shifting positions for different audiences, leaving people wondering what he really thought. According to a Palestinian-American author and acquaintance, Obama ‘has a pattern of forming relationships with various communities and as he takes his next step up, kind of distancing himself from them and then positioning himself as the bridge’ (5).

It was during this period that Obama gave his now-famous speech against the Iraq war, in which he predicted that the intervention would lead to ‘an occupation of undetermined length with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences’. In his presidential campaign, Obama endlessly references this October 2002 speech, to demonstrate his foresight and judgment. But less noted is the fact that on that day he also stressed – with one eye on national politics – that he was not against all wars.

* * *

By 2003, having built a wider base of support in Illinois, Obama decided to throw his hat into the ring again for national office, this time pursuing a US senate seat. He won the Democratic primary in March 2004, which led to some national media attention. His prominent profile also led John Kerry to handpick Obama to be a keynote speaker at the July 2004 Democratic Party National Convention. Obama’s speech would prove to be mesmerising to the audience (it certainly stood out amid an otherwise dull gathering). His call for an end to divisiveness and partisanship – for which he is now well-known – struck a chord. ‘There is not a liberal America and a conservative America: there’s the United States of America’, he said, to rapturous applause.

The convention speech launched Obama as a national star. Immediately, there was speculation that we had witnessed a president of the future. It also helped his Senate campaign, which he handily won in November 2004, thanks in no small part by the fact that his original Republican opponent was forced to withdraw due to a sex scandal. Off the back of his new national notoriety, Obama re-published Dreams from My Father, and struck a deal for another book, The Audacity of Hope. At the same time, as he entered the Senate, he did something unprecedented for a first-time senator: he formed a broad ‘All-Star’ team of advisers, many of whom served in the Clinton administration. Before even starting in his new role, he was planning for the next one, and influential Democrats were joining the bandwagon.

The Audacity of Hope was published the following year, 2006. The book is about ‘how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life’. Each chapter covers a number of policy issues, such as ‘Our Constitution’, ‘Opportunity’ and ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’.

His policy discussions are full of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’-type formulations. For example, liberals are against the government intrusions into personal life, but ignore how government regulations can stifle small business. Obama’s own experience of putting forward immigration legislation shows where this process ends up. He worked on immigration proposals that called for a mix of measures, including increased border security, harder conditions for employers to hire workers illegally, a revised citizenship process and a guest-worker programme. The result in October 2006 was the ‘Secure Fence Act’, supported by Obama, which only ordered a bigger fence on the Mexico border and other security enhancements.

Foreign policy is another area in which Obama demonstrates his ambivalent approach. He explains, for instance, that despite his initial opposition to the war in Iraq, it would be unwise to withdraw troops too quickly. In Iraq and other potential hotspots, Obama makes clear that he would be willing to use military intervention (‘pay any price and bear any burden to protect our country’), if necessary.

Overall, Obama’s approach is to discuss an issue in detail, but then make suggestions that are the opposite of audacious: for example, small-bore programmes such as retraining workers or assisting pregnant teens. His approach heavily borrows from Bill Clinton’s triangulation or Tony Blair’s Third Way. But Obama is keen to demonstrate that he is breaking with the past, and therefore has to find some distance between Clinton and himself. One way he does is by lumping Clinton in with Republican Newt Gingrich: ‘In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation – a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago – played out on the national stage.’ The reality, however, is that Obama might have transcended Clinton in terms of generational outlook, but he was still a prisoner of Clinton’s approach to policy. He may say in Audacity that he prefers ‘concrete’ solutions, but his lack of imaginative, abstract thinking means he cannot come up with much concretely.

But more than the policy specifics, Obama prefers to talk about improving civic culture. He believes that Americans have lost ‘those shared assumptions – that quality of trust and fellow feeling – that bring us together as Americans’. In what is now a familiar refrain from Obama, he details how Americans are turned off by bickering, partisan politics, which seem to cause Washington to stall and avoid solving problems. His tone certainly marks a shift in American politics. But how he plans to restore good behaviour is not explained.

Most annoying – and revealing – is Obama’s compulsion to write about his personal life. Dreams from My Father was clearly meant to be a personal memoir, but The Audacity of Hope is ostensibly a book about politics. But at its outset, Obama states that his ‘treatment of the issues are partial and incomplete’, and that he does not ‘offer a unifying theory of American government’. Instead he offers ‘something more modest: personal reflections on those values and ideals that have led me to public life’ (emphasis added).

Each chapter obligingly begins and ends with an often-lengthy personal anecdote. Of course, you would expect any policy book by a politician to be illustrated by examples from personal experience, but Obama’s approach is excessive. In Oprah-style, he talks about his wife and kids, and the combination with policy jars. He tells us about an intimate moment on his first date with his future wife: ‘I asked if I could kiss her. It tasted of chocolate.’ This is more information than this reader needs or would like to know.

Of course, the book was an instant bestseller. People began lining up at 4am for his book signing in Chicago; a Seattle signing was held in an auditorium seating 2,500. In retrospect, it’s clear that the book was meant as his presidential manifesto. Certainly some national pundits picked up on this; David Brooks, for one, wrote an op-ed piece entitled ‘Run, Barack, Run’ (6). And four months later after publishing Audacity, in February 2007, Obama indeed announced he would seek the nomination. He had only spent about two years in the Senate up to then, with not much to show for it (7).

As Obama kicked off his official presidential campaign, it was clear that this outsider, who had only arrived in Washington two years earlier, had quickly become the candidate of a significant section of the Democratic Party hierarchy. He added more advisers, including prominent Democrats such as the former senate leader, Tom Daschle. And in the first half of 2007, Obama’s campaign raised $58million, more than the other candidates (including Hillary, who was supposed to be the establishment candidate) and breaking previous records. Internet donors contributed about $16million of that, which meant that the bulk was coming from the party’s elite funders. He was on his way.

* * *

Looking over Obama’s relatively brief political career, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that the probable next ‘leader of the free world’ has not led anything of significance to date. Part of the reason is that he always seemed to move on to a new role before even accomplishing much. Perhaps it is what he himself calls his ‘chronic restlessness’. At the same time, he seems unwilling to express political principles or thought-out policies. Consequently, if he were to be elected, we really do not know how he would govern. His vaunted ‘pragmatism’ could very well mean flying by the seat of his pants.

Obama gains most support when he attacks both Republicans and Democrats for the ‘politics of the past’. He parasitically feeds off the disenchantment for what stands for politics today. But when it comes to the future, he has little to say. Instead, we are offered Obama the person, someone we are supposed to ‘know’ through his books, speeches and other media appearances. And so far it seems to be working: many appear to treat Obama as a blank slate upon which to project their hopes. But in his disdain for ideas, and his substitution of personal biography in their place, Obama takes the politics of personality to a new low. Believing that a politician who has struggled with his divided personal identity will therefore know how to unite and advance a country really is a dream, one audacious in its naivety.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama is published by Canongate Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama is published by Canongate Books (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) All polling data from Real Clear Politics, average of national polls

(2) Janny Scott, ‘The Story of Obama, Written by Obama’, New York Times, 18 May 2008

(3) Kirsten Scharnberg and Kim Barker, ‘The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama’s youth’, Chicago Tribune, 25 March 2007

(4) Jo Becker and Christopher Drew, ‘Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side’, New York Times, 11 May 2008

(5) Ibid

(6) David Brooks, ‘Run, Barack, Run’, New York Times, 19 October 2006

(7) Kate Zernike and Jeff Zeleny, ‘Obama in Senate: Star Power, Minor Role’, New York Times, 9 March 2008

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