Did Barack Obama ruin politics? Or did politics ruin Barack Obama? At this point, most Americans have made up their minds about the president one way or another. But even for people who think they know who the man in the Oval Office really is, it’s easy to forget who he once was.
Before running for political office, Barack Obama was a stubborn dreamer with a literary bent. Mostly he dreamed of living a better life story, even if that meant scrubbing away the blemishes of reality. Part of his appeal was the way he emerged from adversity unsullied. He was better than that. And with his help, we could be too.
That was Obama’s pitch to America. He would allow all of us to escape the mundane reality of politics, to live that better story with him, and erase the messiness of the past and present—just as he had done for himself. In Dreams from My Father, Obama’s 1995 book about his itinerant childhood and work as a community organizer in Chicago, the pre-presidential candidate recalls his grandfather’s habit of rewriting uncomfortable truths about his own history in order to produce a better future. Obama, who as a child lived with his grandparents for many years, admits to picking up the habit himself: “It was this desire of his to obliterate the past,” he writes, “this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony.”
Obama applied that very American tradition to politics. His campaigns would be about making the world a better place—more personable, less racially charged, more united in goals and respectful in temperament—more true, in other words, to the story we all wanted to believe about America. The ugliness of politics past would lose its grip on the reimagined future.
But the power to imagine is not the power to accomplish. Vague, high-minded goals get sullied when translated into specific, practical policies. Nearly a full term of a moribund economy has turned the words hope and change into bitter punch lines. As time passes, the suspicion grows that the same narrative gift that made Obama so interesting and fresh in the mid-1990s contained the seeds of his failure as a president. Storytelling, it turns out, is no substitute for governance, and nothing ruins a promising writer faster than the practice of wielding power. As the allure of Obama’s dreams wears off, so has the allure of his presidency. Obama promised to change politics; instead, politics changed him.
Dreams from My Father
Dreams from My Father is neither policy book nor campaign bio. It’s more of a literary memoir/partially fictionalized coming-of-age tale/quest for racial and national identity kind of thing. It’s one of those books that people describe as “defying genre.” Like cotton candy, there’s less substance to it than it seems at first, but it’s sweet, soft, and gently overpowering. You might not be able to classify it, but you won’t soon forget it.
Part of what’s striking about the book is how little action there is. Obama doesn’t really do much throughout its 400-odd pages. He talks to people. He shares some thoughts. He grows up under an array of substitute father figures. He meets his real father, once. He goes to college at Columbia University, gets a job as a community organizer in Chicago, then leaves for Harvard Law. He talks to more people. He travels to Africa to meet his father’s family and learn more about his roots. He has some more thoughts. He ponders life, and race, and America, and himself. You don’t learn much about the world, exactly, but you do learn a lot about Barack Obama.
One of Obama’s key modes for grappling with the world, as it happens, is to rewrite it—preferably with a melancholy, literary bent. He nostalgically remembers his adolescent resentment at existence, and talks of fashioning an image for himself that involved smoking a lot and hanging out with Marxist theorists and leather-jacket-clad punk rockers. He’s angry at the world in a way that only a middle class kid with an Ivy League degree can be.
Dreams from My Father is not for everyone, but there’s real rhetorical power in the way it acknowledges the complexity of the world and resists the comfort of simple answers, as well as in its searching, poetic sadness. In the book’s climax, Obama receives a stack of his late father’s papers, then launches into a moony imagining of the man he barely knew as a little lost boy. “He’s hungry, tired, clinging to his sister’s hand, searching for the mother he’s lost. The hunger is too much for him, the exhaustion too great.”
This make-believe Dickensian father struggles to hold onto an imagined vision of his own mother, as if he can keep her alive and present through sheer will and belief. But eventually he succumbs to the fatigue, and the image of his mother “floats down, down into the emptiness.” His father survives, grows up, but—severed from his mother—retreats into his own mind. “He won’t forget the desperation of that day.”
Like a lot of literary types, Obama places high stock in the value of stories, and is always trying to live up to the story he imagines for himself. When explaining the big turning points in his life, he doesn’t spill much ink over the pros and cons; cost-benefit analysis tends to be an afterthought. Instead, Obama looks for symbolic acts that reveal—or create—his true character.
When he decides to quit the high-powered, high-paying business of corporate consulting for the low-paying, low-prestige world of community activism, Obama writes that “with the benefit of hindsight, I can construct a certain logic to my decisions, show how becoming an organizer was part of a larger narrative.” Later, when he leaves the Chicago housing project of Altgeld Gardens for Harvard Law, he’s still trying to fill out an imagined story arc: “I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail,” he wrote, “knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire. That’s the story I had been telling myself.”
But young Obama isn’t Prometheus; he’s Aesop. He brought fables, not fire. He writes in hushed tones about the “sacred stories” of the people he meets as a community organizer. It’s all part of his character arc: Like in a third-act revelation of a cheesy Hollywood screenplay, their stories are what help him find himself. Learning the tales of their lives, he writes, “helped me bind my world together…they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for.” This sentiment, which would follow him to the presidency, combines Obama’s post-grad literary sensibility with a youthful narcissism: The lives he encounters become vehicles for his own self-fulfillment.
Obama’s insistence on putting his own journey at the center of other people’s anecdotes can be off-putting. But what saves Dreams from My Father is that the future president also seems genuinely interested in lives and characters for their own sake. Their lives matter to him. But they also matter, period.