Two Books Take A Look At Obama

Two recent books shed light on both Barack Obama’s place in the history of black Americans and the state of his presidency. David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama takes Obama from the meeting of his parents in Hawaii to Inauguration Day, 2009. Jonathan Alter’s The Promise: President Obama, Year One looks, in sometimes excessive detail, at Obama’s successes and failures of 2009 and early 2010.

Both authors are veteran journalists: Remnick with The Washington Post and The NewYorker,Alter with Newsweek. Thus, both rely on interviews – in each instance, hundreds of them. The Bridge is the better book. Remnick succeeds in explaining, as thoroughly as anyone has to date, how “the Joshua generation” in the person of Barack Obama was able to reconnoiter in Hawaii, at colleges on the west and east coasts, in New York and Chicago, and then lead African-Americans into the Promised Land. He also, as so many felt on election night 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009, symbolized the ability of Americans to transcend their history of racism.

Alter’s book is full of Obama’s people and their influence – people like colorful chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel, who helped in the White House’s dealing with the Congress in which he had served, who opposed making health care reform the administration’s first priority, and who maintains a healthy disrespect for almost anyone, but particularly for “the purists who couldn’t see that something is almost always better than nothing.”

But the central figure is always Obama and his style. According to Alter, Bill Clinton “appreciated how natural a president he (Obama) turned out to be.” Clinton noted Obama’s skill at “lateral integration,” the “absorbing of the life and work experiences of others” in shaping policies and making decisions. Alter argues that Obama possessed such skills because of his “fully integrated personality. Despite scars he might bear from childhood, he wasn’t usually working out ego issues in his relationships. This helped him to move quickly to take the best of what other people offered.”

But Alter always comes back to the promise: 502 of them made during Obama’s presidential campaign. In Obama’s first year in office, 91 of them have been kept, according to the St. Petersburgh Times. Progress has been made on another 285. Fourteen were broken; 87 were stalled.

But some promises were more important than others, notably to bring health care to all Americans. According to Alter, Obama “had won ugly – without a single Republican – but won all the same … Whatever happened next, Obama was in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in terms of domestic achievement, a figure of history for reasons far beyond the color of his skin.”

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