New Obama book: A danger to his image?

'Barack Obama: The Story,' which tells about the president's life as a young man in New York and Chicago, could threaten Obama's own carefully crafted narrative about his life.

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    This undated photo released by Obama for America shows Barack Obama with his grandparents, Stanley Armour Dunham and Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham, in New York City, during a visit with Obama, who was a student at Columbia University at the time.
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A new biography of President Obama is about to hit book stores (and Amazon and WalMart and iTunes and wherever else people get their long-form printed material these days.) Is this in-depth tome – “Barack Obama: The Story,” by award-winning historian David Maraniss – a threat to the president’s reelection effort?

No, we’re not basing this on the false charge that the book reveals Obama mashed ex-girlfriends together, creating a composite character in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.” Mr. Obama disclosed that in the introduction to every edition of the book, despite what you may have read yesterday via the Drudge Report.

That mistaken charge took root largely due to an error by Politico in a report Wednesday on a book excerpt. Once they discovered that Obama had indeed disclosed his authorial technique Politico issued a correction, but it was too little, too late.

“By the time [the Politico reporter] had acknowledged his errors, the mistake had taken on a life of its own,” writes media mistake expert Craig Silverman in a post on the flaplet at the journalism site

Politico’s faux pas may continue to rattle around the corners of the Internet. But what we’re talking about here is something bigger: whether the Maraniss book is a danger to Obama because it could redraw the origin story Obama has carefully constructed for himself.

That’s the theme of another Politico story. (It’s possible they felt they had to go deep think to make up for their Wednesday mess.)

Obama’s books have given him nearly complete control over his life narrative, write reporters Glenn Thrush and Dylan Byers. The president portrays himself as a searching, rational, multicultural product who struggled to find his place in a world of black and white.

“But Maraniss’s biography threatens that narrative by questioning it: Was Obama’s journey entirely spiritual and intellectual? Or was it also grounded in the lower realms of ambition and calculation?” write the Politco reporters.

Excerpts from the book published in Vanity Fair haven’t contained explosive new information. They focus on the young Obama’s relationships with serious girlfriends. They depict Obama struggling indeed with his identity – but also as somebody eager to get ahead, with his eye on the next big thing for himself.

“The problem is that Obama doesn’t want to be nailed down,” write Messrs. Thrush and Byers. “He is a control freak when it comes to messaging his own life – he won’t utter any words he thinks he couldn’t have written himself.”

Well, Mr. Maraniss is a thorough reporter, so it’s possible there are revelations to come. But based on the evidence so far we’d say this won’t have much effect on Obama’s poll numbers.

For one thing, time has passed. Voters have four years experience with Obama as president and have developed their own story about his personality in their heads. That’s the Obama biography – or rather, the millions of individual Obama biographies – that will most matter at the poll.

For another thing, since when is ambition a disqualifying trait in politics? To become president, candidates must be more than pure seekers of truth. The young Abraham Lincoln used to lie on the floor and moan to friends about how he was losing his chance to be remembered by the world. Mitt Romney has been running for the Oval Office for a decade. The office in question here is chief executive of the US, not the oracle of Delphi.

That said, the book is sure to provide source material for Romney researchers. They’ll comb every page for stuff that could portray Obama in an unflattering light. And in today’s Twitter-fueled dragster-fast news cycle, those bits will find a willing audience.

“Instead of being welcomed for what it is, Maraniss’s book is going to be mined for ‘potentially game-changing’ ancecdotes,” writes Slate political blogger David Weigel Thursday.

The title of Weigel’s post? “David Maraniss, Meet the Freak Show.”


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