Review: Biography: The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage by Jodi Kantor
Allen Lane, €20.99
Published 22/01/2012 | 06:00
On the day that Barack Obama was elected US president only one newspaper, the satirical daily The Onion, really grasped the rich ambiguity of this moment of history. "Black man given nation's worst job," was its headline.
And so it has turned out. Not everything Barack Obama has tried to do has failed, but even the president's friends admit that this has not been the transformational administration promised in 2008.
He may well get another chance to seal the deal in his second term, but the chance comes courtesy of the weakness of his opponents rather than the driving force of his own achievements. He has not reworked the nation in his image.
This book is one of the first to give us a sense of why that might be. What were the reasons for the stumbles, the drift, the malaise that many of his own supporters believe has hung over Obama since the day he came to power?
An early scene gives a clue. It's the Super Bowl -- the great showdown of American football that stops the nation in its tracks in early February. In 2009, this was the first chance the Obamas had to entertain chez nous on Pennsylvania Avenue. The game is to be watched in the White House cinema, with waiters serving hotdogs.
Obama's staff invited a selection of guests: wounded soldiers, potentially useful politicians and friends. It was an opportunity for the new president to connect.
He flunked it. As Jodi Kantor writes: "The host greeted everyone and shook hands, but as soon as the game started he settled into his seat, a big velvet chair in front, marked off by a little name card."
A Democratic congressman who was there tells Kantor: "He was sitting up front, he was watching the game and he didn't move."
The disappointment of the Super Bowl was carried forward into those crucial first months in the White House. Part of the reason Obama wanted to become president, Kantor writes, was to see more of his family.
Years as a Chicago senator and as a campaigning candidate had seen him away more often than not. Now his family lived upstairs at last and he and they wanted to make the most of it.
So he refused to miss dinner with his children more than twice a week. This was a firm rule. Kantor writes: "Though Obama was relatively new to Washington, he wasn't going to spend his evenings getting to know people there; the White House turned down virtually every dinner party or gala invitation the president got."
Even phone calls went unmade. Years ago, one of Reagan's chiefs of staff told me why he had taken the job. At first he had refused. His wife had refused. His current employer had refused. Reagan rang him. One of his children answered the phone: "It's the president, for you."
He took the job.
So the revelation in this book that a tool used by presidents since its invention to cajole and impress and flatter went unused by Barack Obama is quite a piece of news. It explains a lot. The job was delegated, an insider says, to staff. That's not the same.
Now you may say, good for him! He was a serious chap with a serious agenda and when he talked about his love of his family he actually meant it. He preferred to talk to Michelle and the kids than some blowhard nitwit in his 50th term in a congressional safe seat. Bravo.
You might be right. But politically the Obama approach was little short of disastrous. It left him, when the going got tough, short of friends, short of people who owed him, short of people who felt that the White House was interested in them. It doesn't take much for a president to impress a fellow American, but for this president it has, too often, been too much.
This is about more than a natural reticence. Obama does not give the impression that he really likes folks that much. As Kantor puts it: "Being in the White House seemed to intensify one of his best traits, his natural seriousness, along with one of his worst, his conviction that he was more serious than anyone else."
His own staff, we are told, often come out of the Oval Office so thrilled by the conversations they have just taken part in that they relive them, "going over the best parts out loud".
This mindset may help to explain the odd decision the White House took to accept the Nobel peace prize in late 2009, before actually achieving any peace. They did not need to: a friend of mine who worked for Obama said they seriously considered politely turning it down, thus gaining kudos without the risk of looking silly. (My friend said they joked about getting the prize for chemistry as well with the citation: "He's got great chemistry.") In other words, they knew this was potentially a bit suspect but they decided to go with it anyway.
Kantor writes of the trip to Oslo: "For one day, the Obamas lived the dream version of their presidency instead of the depressing reality."
Friends who had travelled with them marvelled at how the members of the Nobel committee had read all the president's books. They knew about his policies, too.
Kantor makes little of it but the trip to Oslo -- and the ill-concealed suggestion that the Obamas were happier there than in Washington or Cleveland or St Louis -- was an unnecessary political own goal, coming as it did in the midst of efforts to get his healthcare reforms passed by Congress.
The Obamas come across in this book as humane and decent and well-meaning but as naive and isolated. Their story is not yet finally written but Jodi Kantor's early draft of history should serve as a warning. Pick up the phone, Mr Prez.
Justin Webb's latest book, Notes on Them and Us, is published by Short Books