Inside Obama's Brain, by Sasha Abramsky, Portfolio, 278 pages, $24.95
December 2009 may go down as the single most consequential month in Barack Obama's presidency. Starting with his announcement of a troop escalation in Afghanistan, through a Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he touted the benefits of war, then an international climate change conference that broke down in disarray, topped by a convulsive national health care debate that nevertheless staggered toward the legislative finish line by Christmas, the president at every impactful step encountered something new in his meteoric young political career: sustained and even vicious criticism from his core fan base on the left.
After the Afghan announcement, '60s New Left relic Tom Hayden declared in The Nation that "it's time to strip the Obama sticker off my car." At Open Left, Paul Rosenberg characterized the president's Oslo performance as a "War-is-Peace Prize speech." When the Copenhagen climate talks broke down, anti-globalization author Naomi Klein concluded in The Guardian that the "failure belongs to Obama." And by the time the 2,457-page health care overhaul made it through the Senate, a who's who list of progressives—including former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and netroots impresario Markos Moulitsas—were actively campaigning against it.
Yet even with the noisy dissent on his left flank and record-setting disapproval ratings from the public at large, the president kept getting stuff done, not least of which appears to be the single largest entitlement expansion since the 1960s. The busy month of December also saw passage of an omnibus spending bill and subsequent Pentagon package that together helped jack up federal outlays by more than 10 percent over the previous year amid only scattered national discussion. The House of Representatives passed a massive financial regulation overhaul that would create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the national debt ceiling was raised once again, and the Environmental Protection Agency took the potentially monumental step of regulating carbon. For a guy who seems perpetually on the verge of losing his political mojo, Obama manages to accomplish quite a bit.
Is that a paradox or a managerial style? A temporary artifact of having 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, or a preview of triangulations to come after the presumed Republican comeback in 2010? Most critiques of Obama pass over such explorations and instead land near one of two poles: ecstatic hope or a wailing, anger-laced despair. There are, for example, two books on the market right now titled Obamanomics, one with the hopeful subtitle How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics, the other with How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses. While there is much to be gained from the righteous, economics-based pessimism of those who never had gauze over their eyes in the first place, much of the anti-Obama literature too readily imagines secret agendas and maximally malevolent intentions, leading to only two possible conclusions: Either we're screwed or we're totally screwed.
For Obama skeptics, the opposite hyperbolic pole is more likely to induce vomit than thoughts of suicide, but it is possible to extract some tangible value there between the gagging. After all, the president's fortunes were probably never going to hinge on the Republicans who didn't like him or his economic policies anyway. It's the independents (who are already leaving in droves) and the true believers still capable of disillusionment who will provide the decisive push on the pendulum one way or another. Read an Obama encomium, and you're likely to gain at least some insight both into what made the president so popular in the first place and where the fault lines with his fickle fans are apt to emerge.
Inside Obama's Brain, a book by the left-leaning journalist Sasha Abramsky that never gets close to the title's destination, is filled with such accidental revelations. Chief among them is how the most banal of words or behaviors can be imbued with a history-making profundity when associated with the compelling pitchman in chief. "I am reminded every day of my life, if not by events, then by my wife, that I am not a perfect man," reads one of six presumably brilliant Obama quotes on the back jacket cover. "Most of my good friends are not in politics," reads another. Such trite declarations, indistinguishable as they are from the sentiments of most American adults, tell us much more about the people who find them captivating than they do about the man speaking.
Abramsky's sense of captive wonder has few limits. Obama is not just a well-read president (as evidenced by his fondness for, uh, "Toni Morrison, the tragedies of William Shakespeare, and Ernest Hemingway") but "a classic Enlightenment figure," a "hard-nosed politician with a poet's aesthetic," and "one of the most ideas-driven presidents in America's history." He's not just a pickup basketball player who goes on the occasional hot streak but someone who focuses "so hard on the game that he would actually start temporarily playing like a better player." It's not just that the president has written his own books (putting him in a small but not rarefied class that includes Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter, among others) but that the act of writing gives "his soul free rein" and that his "relationship to the written and spoken word is central…to his very being."
Abramsky is hardly alone in such shuck and awe. Promiscuous historian Douglas Brinkley, who provides some of the book's most consistently if unintentionally hilarious quotes, opens up a key window into the Obama Effect. "I'm constantly amazed at how much he's read and how much he knows," Brinkley says. "Obama seems to read and it has effects on him. He's not a policy wonk, per se, just acquiring information. He allows information to flow in in an emotive way. This happens to very smart book-lovers.…It's very refreshing to fellow writers. Because we recognize it, and we feel he's at least an auxiliary member of our tribe."
Brinkley's quote contains three important secrets of Obama's adult success: flattering his audience's intelligence, effortlessly insinuating himself into influential tribes, and giving the impression that he values rigorous knowledge over rigid ideology. Underlying all these tactics is a root talent, a mesmerizing je ne sais quoi, that keeps cropping up in testimony from Abramsky's community-organizer and academic sources.
"He was very calm, very poised, a good listener as well as a good talker," Obama's high school homeroom teacher Eric Kusonoki says. "Very eloquent." He was "someone who was very much at ease with himself," reports Geoff Stone, former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, who met Obama as a young man. "Body language is an apt part of it, tone of voice.…a sense of being an equal when he's meeting with the dean of a law school when he's still a law student."
Possessed with a winning poise, sharp intellect, and rakish good looks, the adult Obama has always been—it's OK to say it out loud—attractive. "In the same way as Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential It Girl, exuded a sexuality not reducible to the sum of her body parts, so Obama's leadership qualities couldn't be reduced to a mere list of personality traits," Abramsky writes in the passage where he comes closest to acknowledging the president's prepolitical allure.
Obama seems to have been aware early on of this rock star–like effect on people, tailoring his presentation to maximally serve his burning ambitions. He "knows how the public reacts to him," testifies civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who hung out with the future president back at Harvard Law. "He was the kind of guy, you looked at him and said to yourself, 'he's going somewhere.'?" As early as 1990, Abramsky reports, "Obama must have known his own peculiar powers to sway audiences. Too many people had listened to him speak and told him he was destined for greatness."
When Obama moved back to Chicago after Harvard, the city's leading nonprofits tripped over themselves offering the thirty-something lawyer important board seats. When David Axelrod's polling company conducted focus groups with white middle-class voters early in Obama's political career, the response was unprecedented. "He connected at a visceral level with these folks," explains Axelrod's partner John Kupper. The same man who could be such a low-key listener in private conversation was, Abramsky paraphrases Kupper as saying, "a master at pulling his audience's emotional strings when onstage."
Enough about the pitch; what about the product? Two main themes emerge: anecdotal narrative and ideology packaged as nonideology. Together they explain much about Obama's past political successes and current governing style.
Community organizing, which Abramsky convincingly portrays as a robust tradition and industry with several differentiated schools of thought and practice, has had a profound effect on the 44th president. As a young community organizer on Chicago's rough South Side, Obama specialized in using his listening skills to draw out people's "narratives," so they could be woven together to present an agenda for changing government policy. Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University lecturer and community organizing guru who set up "Camp Obama" cells throughout the 2008 campaign, describes the goal of narrative-harvesting as having "much more of an emotional content than a conceptual content."
As president, Obama has his aides prepare a folder full of letters from Americans every morning, and he routinely retells their stories during crucial policy speeches. At the beginning of the health care reform debate, the White House website helpfully encouraged Americans to tell their health care "stories" in order to move Congress to act.
Obama is blunt about one advantage of governing by anecdote rather than philosophy: Individual stories create emotional connections that move people in a place where traditional political chatter does not. The other, craftier benefit to the anecdotal approach is that it allows politicians to pretend that their aims, in contrast to those of their opponents, are based on pure sweet empathy rather than cold, unfeeling ideology. When giving his big health care speech to a joint session of Congress in September, Obama slammed opponents to his plan as "ideological," while maintaining that the late Ted Kennedy's longtime support for health care reform "was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience."
Such formulations should not pass the laugh test, but Americans are particularly and perennially eager to believe that only people who share their own politics heroically refrain from bathing in the muck of ideology. It has now become the ticket to entry into the presidential finals to loudly proclaim a break with (in Obama's formulation) "the failed ideologies of the past." This was no less true with John McCain and George W. Bush, though we may remember it less after suffering through the practical ideology of recent Republican governance.
Again and again in Inside Obama's Brain, we are invited to believe that America, through its new vessel, has finally broken free from the chains of dogma. Abramsky even twice describes the November 2008 election as a "velvet revolution," an obscene if telling formulation. But the great disadvantage to governing rather than campaigning is that once bills are signed into law you can no longer hide the ideology behind fuzzy slogans and nonideological protestations. The fact is, Obama has presided over the biggest spending increase since World War II after promising a "net spending cut," enacted multiple taxes after multiply promising not to, kept deliberations secret after vowing "unprecedented transparency," and intruded into private industry to an extent not contemplated since the collapse of communism. In other words, he has governed like the most stereotypical of old-school economic progressives. As ever, nonideology turns out to be ideological after all.
Therein lies the seed of Obama's political demise. Those who bought Hope and Change hook, line, and sinker are apt to believe, as Abramsky states, that Obama was that rarest breed of politicians: one who does not lie, does not condescend to voters, does not play politics with the truth. "We're all adults, he implies," Abramsky writes. "You can trust me because I'll give it to you as I see it." As they find themselves on the other side of Obama's policy arguments, whether on drug legalization, national security, or a health care "public option," these same fans have become some of the president's harshest critics. At press time the reliably lefty community-organizing site Firedoglake was denouncing Obama's "bald-faced lies" on health care, pledging solidarity with the once-hated Tea Parties, and stirring up bitter left-on-left recriminations by sending its contributors to be interviewed by Fox News. Hell hath no fury like a liberal scorned.
Inside Obama's Brain is replete with examples of how its subject can turn into a ruthless and efficient horse-trading pragmatist when it comes to reaching the finish line on a project. This tendency, too, should fill a skeptical citizen's heart with dread, as a new decade of bad Washington centralization gets off on the wrong foot with cap-and-trade legislation and possibly worse. But with every twisted arm and bought-off vote for a deeply flawed compromise bill the fantasy of Obama's transcendent Otherness becomes that much harder to sustain. It's the people who have their hopes toyed with who are most likely to demand a change.
Matt Welch (email@example.com) is editor in chief of reason.