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Obama’s style and substance

Bill Countryman on a presidential study

Renegade: The making of Barack Obama
Richard Wolffe
Virgin Books £16.99
(978-1-905264-87-2)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

RICHARD WOLFFE is a journalist who covered Barack Obama’s cam­paigns for the Democratic nomina­tion and the Presidency. (The title Renegade derives from the code name given to President Obama at the time by his Secret Service agents.) Wolffe seems to have en­joyed an unusual amount of access to the candidate, and to his close associates, and the result is a well-written combination of campaign history and meditation on Obama’s temperament and character as re­vealed in the process.

The campaign history is an excit­ing narrative at times, but may ap­peal primarily to those with a par­ticu­lar interest in practical poli­tics. It is the study of Obama, woven through these chapters of political reporting, that deserves a broader audience. Although Wolffe ends up with a positive assessment of the President, this does not keep him from exploring possible weaknesses as well. Obama himself seems to have encouraged this “rounded” portrait.

Wolffe’s conversations with the candidate’s long-time associates make it clear that the President is not interested in having friends who simply agree with him. His associ­ates did not shrink from expressing criticism, even though they knew that Wolffe would be writing a book, and the President emerges, in their conversations with Wolffe and in his own, as genuinely human, how­ever impressive and distinctive he may be.

Obama’s compassion, his sense of the realities of poverty, and his willingness to initiate relationships across lines of rivalry or hostility — all these have deep roots in a child­hood and youth that exposed him to an unusually broad slice of hu­manity, and in his work as a com­munity organiser in Chicago when he was a young man. It owes much to his mother’s idealism, and is intimately connected with the faith that the President acquired at Trin­ity United Church of Christ in Chicago, even though Wolffe is in­clined to minimise this element be­cause the President did not speak of it often on the campaign trail.

Obama’s ability to remain cool at demanding moments has become legendary. At moments, however, it seemed perilously close to neglect of the campaign. Its counterpart is a capa­city to engage wholeheartedly and productively with specific chal­lenges.

This pattern seems to be continu­ing. He does not hover over his ini­tia­tives, and may even seem to ne­glect some of them. But, to borrow terms used by one of his staff, Peter Rouse, he responds energetically when things become “immediate”, “complicated”, or “consequential”. He will have no shortage of stimuli in the next three years.

Wolffe has written a readable introduction to a person who is important to the world at large. And he offers enough detail for us to make or refine our own assessment of Obama, too.

The Revd Dr Countryman is Pro­fessor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

Buy this book at Church Times bookshop.

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