Young Mr. Obama

What we can learn about Obama from his Chicago years.

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

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.

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.

In fact, much of the book implicitly destroys the conservative caricature of Obama as a revolutionary anti-American. This is all the more impressive because McClelland rarely interjects political commentary into the narrative. He simply lets the facts do the talking. Obama’s successor at his community organization project once commented on a book that was critical of capitalism. “Yeah, but, John,” [Obama] retorted, “if you want to be honest about it, where else can you find a system that allows you to do as much as you can do in this country?” In the Illinois Senate, Obama was closer to his white colleagues than his fellow African-Americans, McClelland notes in a telling aside.

Another nugget that derives its strength from McClelland’s political experience is the bravery of Obama’s famous 2002 speech against the Iraq war. Derided by some as easy because the war was unpopular, McClelland points out that Obama was the lone state senator at the rally, which some of his friends had warned him against attending. “As a legislator, he wasn’t expected to have a position on foreign policy,” he writes. “As a Senate candidate, he could hurt himself Downstate by speaking out against what might be a quick, popular war.”

“Young Mr. Obama” is not all flattering, by any means. Obama comes off as ambitious, talented, arrogant, astute, detached, calculating, principled, well-intentioned, and elitist. With a Harvard degree and white grandparents, Obama is not necessarily a natural fit with either the working class or the hard-core black community. He has been known to use people who can be valuable to his career and then abandon them when they are no longer helpful to him.

McClelland’s book is long on reporting and narrative, and short on meditation and analysis – for which readers can be thankful. So many books are too long, with authors incapable of self-editing and eager to be definitive. “Young Mr. Obama” mercifully avoids the inauguration address-like grandiloquence that often surrounds recounting of the 44th president.

The only complaint to be registered about the book is the lack of sourcing. There are important interviews throughout, but it’s not always clear when McClelland is cutting from previously reported stories and when he is getting fresh material.

For the many Americans who remain fascinated with the American president, “Young Mr. Obama” makes for insightful, enlightening reading, a worthy supplement to Remnick’s book and a valuable contribution to the record on the 44th president.

Jordan Michael Smith is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, who has written for The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, and The New Republic.

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