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Young Mr. Obama

What we can learn about Obama from his Chicago years.

By Jordan Michael Smith / October 26, 2010

Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President By Edward McClelland Bloomsbury Press 288 pp., $24

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When journalist David Remnick’s book “The Bridge” was released earlier this year, it was – justly – greeted as the Barack Obama biography we had been waiting for, a work that explains the 44th US president and his importance and context. Remnick’s book excelled at placing Obama in the context of African-American history, but was less successful in explaining the new president in terms of the Chicago political scene.

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With Young Mr. Obama, Edward McClelland finishes what “The Bridge” started, showing how Obama navigated Chicago political life, which can be as rough as a Blackhawks game. A writer for the Chicago Tribune when the young Obama was a state senator, McClelland is a veteran local reporter, giving him a terrific understanding of the political terrain and state geography.

The book begins with Obama applying to be a community organization on Chicago’s South Side, an unusual, praiseworthy career choice for someone who could have built a much bigger bank account for himself working for a big corporation. Several reporters – and Obama himself – have identified the future president’s experiences as a community organizer as formative to his development. It was an experience that schooled him in the possibilities and limits of grass-roots-oriented social change.

“Young Mr. Obama” skips over Obama’s Harvard years, proceeding to his 1996 election to the Illinois Senate, his ill-fated run for Congress in 2000, and his subsequent, successful US Senate run in 2004.

Among the book’s revelations are Obama’s prospective success as a scholar – professors thought the future president would have been a first-rate academic. The dean of the University of Chicago Law School personally asked Obama to become a full-time scholar.

McClelland also offers an interesting portrait of Obama as professor. “Just don’t go with your gut,” Obama told his minority students. “As a Latino or African-American or an Asian lawyer, you’re going to have issues, but you’re going to have to keep that out of thinking like a lawyer.” The anecdotes taken from the classroom are of interest also because the moderate tone Obama adopted as a professor is so entirely at odds with the right-wing attempts to portray Obama as a radical.

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