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Barack Obama: The Story

Clinton biographer David Maraniss strives for a key to America's 44th president.

By Kevin Hartnett / June 18, 2012

Barack Obama: The Story David Maraniss Simon & Schuster 672 pp.


Who is Barack Obama and what drove him to become president? The questions resonate even among his staunchest supporters. I worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and count him as the first public figure I’ve truly admired. At the same time, the nature of his ambition seems harder to decipher than the motives of the men who preceded him in the presidency.

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David Maraniss’ surprisingly fresh new biography, titled simply, Barack Obama: The Story, is an attempt to reveal the formation of Obama’s character – to explain how a man who made it well into his 20s without signaling his potential greatness, transformed into one of the most consequential members of his extended generation. 

This is the second time that Maraniss has tried to narrate presidential ambition and his first effort was surely an easier one. His 1996 biography of Bill Clinton, "First in His Class," told the story of a born glad-hander with an insatiable desire for other people’s esteem. Clinton was complex and confounding as president, but the source of his ambition was easy enough to locate.

Obama’s ambition is more obscure. Maraniss seems to have tracked down just about everybody who ever knew the young Barry Obama, including his neighbors in Indonesia, high school classmates in Hawaii, college roommates, and old girlfriends. To a person they recall Obama as a nice guy – easy-going, private, smart – but never as someone who thirsted for greatness or even seemed uniquely equipped to achieve it. Many echo the sentiments of Obama’s first boss out of college, who said that Obama “did not stand out in any material way.” 

"The Story" devotes substantial space to the lives of Obama’s grandparents and parents and it’s not until page 165 that the future president appears – perhaps straining the patience of readers eager for the main event.

In other areas, though, Maraniss’s editorial choices bear more fruit. He covers Obama’s childhood through to 1988, when Obama was 27, and about to enter Harvard Law School. At first I was disappointed that there would be no accounting of Obama’s political ascent and presidential run, but Maraniss argues, convincingly, that the most important things we need to know about Obama took place well before he first ran for office.

Maraniss’s biography covers the exact same period of Obama’s life that the president explored in his memoir "Dreams From My Father," but the two books differ in places where Maraniss comes to understand the young Obama differently than Obama does himself.


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