This article is adapted from Inside Obama’s Brain, by Sasha Abramsky, by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Sasha Abramsky, 2009.
One year ago this week, millions of Americans thronged to Washington to participate in a presidential inauguration the likes of which this country had never before witnessed. The sense of optimism was contagious. In cities and hamlets around the fifty states, one could almost physically feel the prospects for change. It was, in many ways, an emotional terrain more akin to a velvet revolution than to the ordinary quadrennial pageants that mark the transfer of power from one president to the next.
A year into Barack Obama’s presidency, some of the gloss of Candidate Obama has worn off, and many of the sky-high expectations for across-the-board, rapid change in how the country goes about its business have been punctured. In fact, it has become almost fashionable in progressive circles to dismiss the Obama presidency as a case study in contradictions, an oratorical feast with too little substance behind the words.
While some changes have not occurred in a manner or at a speed that I would have liked, I profoundly disagree with the notion that “nothing has changed,” that Obama is simply a more articulate version of George W. Bush.
No, the healthcare debate didn’t produce the single-payer system that I would have preferred, but can one imagine Bush spending six months of his first year in office pushing Congress to find a way to provide coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans? No, the Copenhagen conference didn’t produce the needed binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases, but can one conceive of the Bush administration playing a constructive role in global climate change negotiations or prodding Congress to enact sweeping legislation in this arena? As for nuclear weapons, it’s pretty hard to envision Bush articulating a long-term vision of a nuclear-free world in the way that Obama has sought to do. Are we there yet? Of course not. But the fact that the president has prioritized nuclear arms reduction treaties, as opposed to assuming America has the right to go it alone on nuclear policy, is a huge start.
During the first months of the Obama presidency, I interviewed well over 100 of Obama’s friends, colleagues, fellow politicians and advisers while researching and writing my book Inside Obama’s Brain. One of the most frequent observations was that Obama is utterly preoccupied with history, with the cadences and rhythms of change, and with the long-term impact of his policy decisions. Confident in his reading of history, to a degree rare among contemporary political figures, he rarely gets flustered by short-term shifts in political fortune or momentary dips in his opinion poll ratings.
The first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration presents a worthy occasion to consider the central role of long-term thinking, of understanding the moment as being part of a broader historical context, within the political philosophy–and the life philosophy–of the country’s forty-fourth president.
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Towering in the background, overlooking Obama’s career as he has risen up the ladders of power and illuminating his sense of political possibility is the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, the “tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” conjured up as talisman during Obama’s February 10, 2007, Springfield speech declaring his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Or, to be more accurate, hovering over Obama are the many ghosts of Lincoln. There is the great debater, the man made famous by his hours-long debates against Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858. There is the reluctant pragmatist, the leader who loathed slavery but gave over much of his first inaugural address to assuring Southerners of his willingness to countenance its continuation in the interests of saving the Union. There is the oratorical master, the visionary author of the Gettysburg Address. And then there is the idealist, the weaver of dreams of the second inaugural.
But Lincoln’s ghosts never remain alone in their sentry duty for long. When Obama speaks, the shades of Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr., even Ronald Reagan rustle in the air around him. So, too, do an array of other historical figures, both American and foreign.
From an early age, Obama loved studying history, and later in life he got immense pleasure from being considered a historical figure himself. During the midterm elections in 2006 friends of Jacky Grimshaw, a colleague and neighbor who worked at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, made a countdown-to-the-election advent calendar. Behind each window, instead of a chocolate, was a quote from a famous historical personage. Behind window seventeen were some of Obama’s words. Grimshaw remembers that when she showed Obama the calendar, his face simply lit up. He was as happy as a clam to be in such a select club.
As a young man, in an era transformed by the civil rights movement, Obama read and reputedly was much influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. He also read the radical antifascist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the famous prayer “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” He participated in student activist campaigns at Occidental College and Columbia University against the apartheid government of South Africa–presumably familiarizing himself with the words and writings of Nelson Mandela in the process.
In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama details his postadolescent fascination with the ideas of Malcolm X at a time when he was flirting with black nationalism and shaping his persona to be somewhat akin to the self-proclaimed revolutionaries of the 1960s student movements a half-generation earlier.
Later, in Chicago, his community organizing trainers immersed him in a people’s history too often left forgotten. As examples they looked at what radical organizers had done in Appalachian Tennessee during the bleakest days of the Great Depression, when they developed a residential training center for black and white alike, known as the Highlander School. They studied the life story of African-American civil rights pioneer Ella Baker, who established scores of “citizenship schools” in postwar America–first on the islands dotting the South Carolina coast, then throughout the South. In these schools, young men and women would learn not just the importance of voting but more generally the transformative power they could exert by letting their voices be heard through broad civic participation. And they looked at the brave work of Bob Moses and other young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers who headed into the most violent counties of rural Mississippi in the early 1960s to live in poor African-American communities and register to vote first one or two, then tens, then hundreds and eventually hundreds of thousands of people.
Read Obama’s writings and you are clearly reading the words of a man who loves grappling with social theories but who also realizes the fragility both of ideas and of the social systems that rest upon them. Like most keen students of history, he understands the need for leaders to exhibit flexibility to meet changed circumstances. In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that “It may be the vision of the Founders that inspires us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union’s survival.” Great men make history, but they are also made by it. They dream, but they also know how to get down to brass tacks.
America, for Obama, is a wondrous experiment, something to be marveled at rather than taken for granted. “At the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work,” he wrote in The Audacity of Hope. And yet at the same time, Obama is all too aware of the times when the country has strayed from its ideals. “Self-reliance; and independence can transform into selfishness and license, ambition into greed and a frantic desire to succeed at any cost. More than once in our history, we’ve seen patriotism slide into jingoism, xenophobia, the stifling of dissent; we’ve seen faith calcify into self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and cruelty toward others.”
Few politicians would dare to put such a critical analysis in print for public consumption. Yet the criticism is always tempered by a sense of possibility. Writing to his daughters in an open letter published in PARADE magazine, Obama said of his grandmother Toot, “She helped me understand that America is great not because it is perfect but because it can always be made better–and that the unfinished work of perfecting our union falls to each of us.”
On the night of his election victory, Obama addressed a vast crowd of enthused supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. The nation, he declared, needed to be remade; and the task would be carried out not just by a new administration but by a motivated populace, “the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years–block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”
On inauguration day, Obama again took up the themes of sacrifice and duty. “Let us mark this day with remembrance,” he told a worldwide audience, “of who we are and how far we have traveled.” And then he segued into an homage to American laborers. “For us,” he declared, past generations “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.”
It was a carefully choreographed reminder to the global audience that historically America has been a country made great by underdogs. Its story can only be told and understood by digging beneath the surface, by searching for the lost stories of countless millions of “ordinary” people. If the Bush years had been characterized by a certain historical amnesia, the inauguration’s timbre made clear, the Obama years were to be framed by a powerful and inclusive sense of history.