Reviewing the Obama Presidency

The Promise: President Obama, Year One, By Jonathan Alter

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
By David Remnick
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 656 pages, $29.95 hardcover

The Promise: President Obama, Year One
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 2010, 458 pages, $28.00 hardcover

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama
Directed by Amy Rice and Alicia Sams
2009, Class 5 Films, 116 minutes

After decades of masochistically watching presidential speeches, I finally stopped, only to be berated by Norma Becker, the wise former WRL chair, when I called her during a George H.W. Bush TV performance. In the exasperated tone she used with her teenage students, she informed me that it was my duty to pay attention to what presidents said because, like it or not, they had a stranglehold on almost everyone in the world.

As usual, Norma was right. But now that Barack Hussein Obama is dominating the media, I feel like time spent on his presidency is worth it. The stories of Obama and the people who campaigned and voted for him, work for him, and hate him evidence new fascinating political complexities. All provide lessons for making the peace and social justice movement a major force in determining this country’s policies.

Here, I focus on two key books about Obama, both scrupulously researched and well written by liberal journalists, and a documentary made by two women who began profiling a freshman senator and ended up chronicling a historic presidential campaign. The books are filled with telling material about Obama’s life and the day-to-day workings of the federal government; they are well worth the attention of WIN readers. The documentary is a primer on operating an effective and ethical national campaign, and a feel-good experience for all but the most jaded.

In The Bridge, David Remnick shows how Obama’s early disorganized, yet loving, family life—and multiple homes in disparate locations with conflicting cultures—at first took its toll on his interest in a conventional life. By the time Obama graduated from college, though, he had outgrown his rootlessness and set out on the course that would move him toward the presidency, first as a local activist, working with poor people of color in Chicago, and then as a constitutional law professor. Along the way, he married the brilliant Michelle Robinson, who, arguably, provided the political framework for his innate commitment to justice.

As an activist, Obama situated himself in the “Joshua generation,” whose duty is to realize the goals of the civil rights movement. Remnick, seeing Obama’s vision of himself as central to his personality, opens his biography with candidate Obama’s remarks at the March 4, 2007, commemoration of “Bloody Sunday.” On that date in 1965, African-American voting rights demonstrators were beaten as they attempted to cross the Selma bridge. “I’m here because somebody marched,” Obama told the crowd gathered. “I stand on the shoulders of giants … to be the generation that finds our way across the river.” John Lewis, who was nearly killed by police on the Selma bridge and is now an Alabama congressmember, is one such giant in Obama’s eyes, according to Remnick.

Nevertheless, as we well know, the President has not adopted wholesale either Lewis’ commitment to nonviolence or his refusal to compromise his beliefs. Remnick offers this explanation by comparing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with Obama: “Obama could admire King, but he could never be him. He was not a leader of a movement; he was a politician, a commander-in-chief.” Jonathan Alter, who in The Promise focuses on Obama’s life after he became President, further asserts that Obama’s clear-eyed realism and superior analytic ability about what is politically possible ultimately eclipsed his personal, possibly more leftist, agenda. Alter views Obama’s shift as an inevitable capitulation to the realities of governing, whereas pacifists see it as a series of heartbreaking betrayals. But no matter what explanation we accept for the President’s shift to the right, Remnick and Alter provide illuminating accounts of how Obama’s internal conflicts are continually hijacked by external pressures.

Unlike the pacifist civil rights leaders, Obama subscribes to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “just war” theory. Obviously, he did not apply the theory when making his decision to increase troops in Afghanistan. As the WikiLeaks documents demonstrate, fighting there has caused grievous suffering and will neither meet the objective of dismantling terrorist groups nor democratize Afghanistan’s internal political structure. As both Remnick and Alter point out, Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan resulted from several factors, most notably intense lobbying by the military establishment that overpowered Vice President Joseph Biden’s opposition and, possibly, Obama’s own insecurity about countermanding the recommendations of those he viewed as more expert than himself.

The President’s second departure from the civil rights movement’s core beliefs is his ease in compromising his principles even before it might be politically necessary. This lapse is particularly painful because, as Remnick and Alter both observe, Obama is very centered morally. Although not an excuse for his lack of political courage, the problems Obama faced upon entering the White House were unique: Not only did he have to clean up George W. Bush’s wide-ranging mess—an economy sliding into a recession, a debased view of the United States throughout the world, and a slew of executive orders that moved the country sharply to the right—he has faced unrelenting virulent personal attacks and unparalleled opposition to all his efforts to govern progressively.

As Alter reports, the Republicans’ “effective strategy of obstruction” quickly derailed Obama’s Lincolnesque inclination to look for the “better angels” in other people. On the popular front, the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, and even the Chamber of Commerce are waging a strong rightwing assault, capitalizing on people’s ignorance, fear, and racism. Obama’s rush to offer concessions is an effort to appease the more rational of his critics. He needs to accept, however, that nothing will satisfy people hell-bent on running him out of office. It is in the best interests of this country, and even the world, for him to lead forcefully and unequivocally according to his values.

Overall, Obama remains closest to civil rights movement principles with respect to his routine expressions of personal nonviolence. This is particularly impressive because pacifists’ commitment to nonviolence most frequently falters in our interactions with each other. Thus we might work harder to embrace Obama’s standard for nonviolence at the personal level, relayed in a speech to Congress: “When we can no longer engage in a civil conversation … we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.” Remnick and Alter provide illustrations of how the president deals openly and honestly in professional relationships; is loyal and discrete and expects both in return; and does not tolerate hissy fits, threats to resign, or turf wars.

Obama’s best face is displayed in By the People. Amy Rice and Alicia Sams document a tightly managed, histrionic-free campaign staffed by an enthusiastic, multiracial team. But the film’s focus is the leadership of two seasoned white male political operatives, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod. Their “star status” highlights the absence of Obama’s longtime African-American campaign directors, though the filmmakers assert that the African-American advisers were less central to the campaign. Alter reports that the Obama team was incensed by the film’s omission of Valerie Jarrett and other Black advisors—an irritation fueled by the belief of ranking African-Americans in the administration that they have taken a back seat to their white colleagues.

The most moving moments of By the People exemplify the symbolism of Obama’s victory for young people of color. Ronnie Cho, a Korean-American who lived with his family in a car when he was a child, is filmed doing the wildly joyous “O Dance” at rally after rally, clearly having a better time than he ever thought possible, and repeatedly tearing up on election night. Mike Blake, an African-American who moved from state to state with the campaign, is shown sobbing uncontrollably when a TV newscaster calls the election for Obama at only 11 p.m. Both men now have administration jobs.

Some of the dreams of the people who voted for Barack Obama have come true. The way he governs and conducts his personal life sets a high standard for behavior. Most important, his election has given African-Americans hope they never before could risk. He has taken some important steps toward making government responsible for providing all people with civil, human, and economic rights. But he has not yet given truth to John Lewis’ inauguration eve pronouncement: “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” In fact, he still has a lot of walking to do. At this moment, the United States still needs a president who can realize the aspirations of the movements that have called on the country to exhibit moral greatness. The books and documentary reviewed here suggest that Obama has that capability. Our job is to demand that he demonstrate it.

Wendy Schwartz, a longtime pacifist activist, researches and writes for several organizations about government social policies as they affect people of color and poor people. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and expects to do so again in 2012, although likely with great disappointment.

Wendy Schwartz

Wendy Schwartz has worked with the War Resisters League for more than 40 years and is a writer, editor, and researcher for non-profit organizations and publishers.