Obama’s style and substance
Posted: 24 Nov 2009 @ 00:00
Bill Countryman on a presidential study
Renegade: The making of Barack Obama
Virgin Books £16.99
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.
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