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.
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.
This is particularly true on the subject of race. In "Dreams" Obama describes himself, as an adolescent, as deep in the struggle to make sense of his biracial identity. But in interview after interview, Obama’s closest friends from those years told Maraniss that Obama gave no signs that he was so consumed with thoughts about race.
Phil Boerner, Obama’s roommate at Columbia told Maraniss of his surprise when he read "Dreams." “I wasn’t aware of him looking at things in such racial terms.”
Maraniss concludes that Obama’s “tendency in [Dreams] was to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so.” This strikes me as an uncharitable conclusion, if only slightly so, and also one at odds with the picture of the young Obama that Maraniss himself constructs.
Either Obama didn’t experience those concerns to the degree he later said he did, or he kept those concerns entirely to himself. In "Dreams," Obama writes that as a teenager consumed with thoughts about race, “[I] learn[ed] to disguise my feverish mood.” And indeed, growing up in a largely non-black world in Hawaii, it makes sense that Obama would have found few people with whom he felt he could talk about the racial questions that preoccupied him.
Maraniss's biography, however, very effectively suggests the depth of Obama’s inner life. These traits are apparent throughout the biography, and particularly in the almost overbearing letters that Obama, as a college senior, wrote to his girlfriend Alex McNear.
“I feel sunk in that long corridor between old values, modes of thought, and those that I see, that I work towards,” he wrote in a letter mailed the spring he graduated from Columbia. “It’s a somewhat dangerous position to be in, since neither future nor past serves to buttress the present; and this ambivalence is acted out in my non-decision as yet about next year.”
In "Dreams" and in "The Story" Obama is seen as intensely devoted to understanding himself and his place in the world. Maraniss argues that this explains why Obama was such a relatively late-bloomer: He had a lot of interior work to do before facing the world. It also suggests why Obama can seem hard to locate politically: So many of his thoughts lie below the surface.
"Barack Obama: The Story" adds considerably to our understanding of the 44th president even if it doesn’t offer a significantly better sense of exactly why Obama pursued power or precisely what he wants to do with it. Maraniss ably outlines the mystery of Obama’s character, even if he’s not able to solve it.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Mich.