The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
by David Remnick
–Reviewed by Adam Fleisher
As David Remnick’s new biography of Barack Obama shows, the big question of the 2008 campaign – whether America was “ready” for a black president – was answered even before it was asked. While Remnick still focuses on the soul-searching of that year, it seems on the evidence that a good number of Americans, and especially the national media, were practically craving Obama.
Before zooming in on Obama’s political rise, Remnick starts with the familiar story of how the future president found and defined himself after being raised primarily by his white grandparents in Hawaii. Obama left Hawaii for Occidental College, and then transferred to Columbia University. When he graduated, as Remnick puts it, Obama “lacked membership in a community and a purpose.” After a diffident year of working in New York, Obama moved to Chicago, and finally felt at home as “a black community organizer in a black community with the purpose of creating an organization to give black people a voice.” Having a better sense of who he was, he also got a sense of what he wanted.
For all the armchair theorizing that Obama’s unique childhood and his search for an identity can explain – for better or worse – his career and his politics, The Bridge offers a much less romantic explanation. At every stage of his political career, Obama was frustrated and even bored. He was convinced that if he had more power he could do good. As Obama told Remnick, “You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don’t control the gavel you cannot move an agenda forward.” In Chicago, where the gains from community organizing had been “too small, too rare”, Obama ingratiated himself in local Democratic Party circles and bided his time until he could run for office. Chicago, observes Remnick, was the perfect place to be. It was a big city with a big African-American political base in a state with demographics consistent with the nation as a whole.
But after his first political win, when he became a state senator, Obama “desperately wanted to graduate from Springfield.” It took Obama two tries to get from the Illinois Senate to Washington. On his first try, the incumbent Bobby Rush handed him a resounding defeat in the congressional primary. In 2004, Obama ran for Senate. Both his primary and general election opponents were damaged beyond repair by ugly scandals related to their divorces. However, it was Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that catapulted him into a political phenomenon and turned his Senate race against Alan Keyes, a last-minute desperate replacement, into a rout.
Even the U.S. Senate wasn’t enough. David Axelrod told Remnick that Obama “hated being senator.” The job, according to an unnamed aide, was “too small for him . . . because his mind was on systemic change, not on votes.” Inquiries about a presidential run had started day after his win. Before he was even sworn in Newsweek put him on the cover “as the future of his Party and a unifying figure for the country.” But at first it looked like Obama would at least spend one cycle in the Senate. After all, Obama didn’t have much going for him other than being a good speaker and “the generally adoring press coverage and standing ovations.” But 2008 was a “perfect storm.” President Bush was loathed and the country, according to one of Obama’s pollsters, was “positioned for something that didn’t look like what had come before.” The anti-Bush fervor was so strong that even Hillary Clinton was vulnerable, given her establishment bona fides. In this climate, Obama’s “slender political record” was an asset. Combined with his appealing life story, and his exciting (to liberal Democrats) rhetoric of change, Obama, his team thought, could win.
Obama had been the beneficiary of “incessant encouragement, inquiry, flattery, and adulation” since he arrived on the political scene, and nothing changed during the presidential campaign. Both the Clinton and McCain camps were embittered by what they felt was unfair treatment, perhaps with good reason. The most significant question posed by journalists – and reiterated by Remnick – was whether the country was ready for Obama. Usually political campaigns are about the candidate’s qualifications, not the voters’. The answer, furthermore, did not really seem in doubt. After all, part of the reason Obama had decided to run was the evidence he could win. He had already run well in white suburbs and rural counties in his Illinois Senate race. Recall (even though Remnick here does not) that Illinois is demographically similar to the rest of the country.
Skepticism about Obama’s viability – particularly within the black community – nonetheless endured until he won Iowa, getting “white votes in the whitest of states,” as the civil-rights leader Julian Bond put it. Black voters and the black establishment, both fiercely loyal to the Clinton machine, didn’t actually come fully on board until the South Carolina primary. At this point, the primary race was all over bar the shouting. Even the Jeremiah Wright scandal was but a blip. Obama’s speech on race, which the New York Times called a “profile in courage,” neutralized the fallout.
The general election campaign reads like an epilogue. Obama was ahead in the polls, and “it turned out,” as Remnick put it, that white voters really would vote for a black candidate. It would be ridiculous to gainsay or begrudge the happiness and relief Obama’s election brought the African-American community, especially the civil-rights generation. But maybe some aspects of America’s progress on race relations, or even on social mobility broadly, were overlooked. As The Bridge shows, whether Remnick intended it to or not, in the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to a “perfect storm” of media adulation, diverse voter enthusiasm, hostility to Washington’s entrenched interests and his own political talents, Barack Obama enjoyed the quickest, easiest and smoothest path to the presidency from the beginning of a political career that modern American politics has ever seen.
Excerpt: “Few politicians, no matter how young or self-aware, could have resisted the incessant encouragement, inquiry, flattery, and adulation that were now coming Obama’s way. At the Harkin steak fry in Indianola, the testing ground for Presidential hopefuls, he had won an enthusiastic ovation and the plaudits of local and national columnists. In Africa, he had been greeted day after day with rapt attention and ecstatic cheering. And now, as he toured the country to promote The Audacity of Hope, his days began and ended with talk of a Presidential run.”
Further Reading: Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 3 by Robert A. Caro and Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan by Richard E. Neustadt
*Photo courtesy The White House.