Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Obamas
© 2012 Jodi Kantor
368 pages

In 2004, a young state senator from Illinois gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His unusual name wasn't one anyone knew -- until that night. Barack Obama's address decried polarization as the work of pundits; he stressed the unity of the American people in their belief in  simple dreams, in certain ideals like justice and equality. He called for people to work together, and created a wave of popularity that sent him from obscurity to the White House in just four years. For all his inexperience in high-level politics, Obama had the gift of stirring people into believing in themselves and governance again. But today, the chanting crowds are gone; the radical changes people expected haven't transpired, and as we enter an election season people are considering Obama anew. The Obamas covers the first three years of the Obama administration, with a particular emphasis on how two people only marginally familiar with the world of D.C. and the trappings and burdens of office struggled to adapt to them, and how Obama's approach changed as the promises of his candidacy clashed with the realities of political administration.

Some of the appeal in a book like this is admittedly voyeuristic; like many Americans I've long been fascinated by the presidency, and the Obama experience is more likely to resonate with the average reader than any other presidency. Unlike the Bushes, Clintons, Reagans, and other families who preceded them, the Obamas had no experience living in the public spotlight, to being doted on by half the population and reviled by the other. The White House is both a residence and a state office, with blurry lines between work and home. Until the president's astonishingly quick rise to power, the Obamas were a thoroughly middle-class family living in an apartment in Chicago; no governor's mansion prepared them for the unique experience of state office. Learning the boundaries took time.  The dynamic between the Obamas themselves is a second theme; although Michelle's familiarity with corrupt Chicago politics had soured her on politics, as First Lady she was expected to take a role in his administration. She turns out to be delightfully strong-willed: if the president and his chief of staff want her to help in the work of the West Wing, it must be useful work, constructive work -- not simply filling in whenever they need someone to give a speech or smile for the cameras. Mrs. Obama is a fantastic counterpart to her husband. While she distrusts politics, her years working in the mayoral office of Chicago give her knowledge into how the game of politics is played. By contrast, the president believes in the power of public office but despises the conventions associated with it -- opportunistic speeches, glad-handing crowds, photo opportunities with strangers.  He wants to rise above these vulgarities, and comes across as aloof and elitist. The Tea Party is the absolute antithesis to his approach, and its popularity catches him by surprise. Not until the 2010 elections, when they sweep into office, does Obama begin to be schooled in politicking by his wife. Only November will tell if his new, more pragmatic approach will work.

I for one found the work heartening. I was one of those enthralled by Obama as candidate, and disappointed as he entered office. As we approach the 2012 elections, that disappointment has given way to a more moderate appreciation. I'm beginning to realize -- like he does, in this novel -- that one man can't change D.C. through sheer strength of will. Although cynicism is tempting, I think it ultimately unrewarding, and I see no reason to see Obama as anything other than a frustrated idealist.  An account like this, which follows the Obama as a couple of ordinary people thrust into the national office,  certainly erodes attempts to villainize him. Its best audience is disappointed Obama supporters: while Kantor doesn't defend, condemn, or endorse Obama's record, walking these past three years again in his shoes may ease some misplaced bitterness and grief.

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