Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Q&A with Obama biographer David Mendell

David Mendell, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of Obama: From Promise to Power.

Q: When you began covering Barack Obama, did you have a sense that he was destined for bigger things? Why or why not?

A: The short answer: No, then yes.

When I started covering Obama regularly for the Chicago Tribune, in 2003, he was a vaguely known Illinois state legislator who had thrown himself into a crowded Democratic Party primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Initially handicapping the field of Democrats, I estimated that he'd likely finish third or fourth in that race, behind candidates who enjoyed higher name recognition, far more campaign money or stronger ties to a Chicago political machine. A couple of years earlier, Obama had failed miserably trying to unseat Congressman Bobby Rush. So my logical side told me: Here's a smart, talented guy again trying to climb the mountain too fast, and who probably will find himself buried in another public face-plant.

However, I also knew that, even though Obama was a liberal, the Tribune's conservative editorial board was very high on him and had dubbed him a rising star. In addition, he had this bizarre name and unique biography – so, at a minimum, I found him an interesting subject. So even if my first instincts told me that he probably wouldn't win that Senate race, my curiosity about him definitely was piqued.

It wasn't until my “Obama moment” -- about a month into my coverage of the primary contest -- that I began to think he might be destined for something grand. It was always fascinating to see people have these “Obama moments,” and by “Obama moment,” I refer to the first time that Obama's intellect, seriousness, confidence, personal charm, or charisma (or all of these traits) become clear, and you're forced to take serious measure of him. Even if you disagree with his politics, it's hard to disagree that he possesses immense political skills.

For me, this realization happened far before many others – in January 2003, when I first interviewed him in depth. We were in his downtown Chicago campaign office, overlooking Grant Park, and he sat behind an old wooden desk overloaded with papers and books. Above him was a big poster of that iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali raging over Sonny Liston just after blasting him to the canvas. In the interview, which lasted about 90 minutes, Obama referenced his three heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi – and said their lives and beliefs had deeply influenced him. In addition, he said that his life's mission was to work for social justice, to lift up the less fortunate among us.

What I recall most vividly: He grew emotional, his voice choking, when he spoke about the extent of poverty, violence and overall despair in parts of his urban legislative district. Most distressing to him: He'd met too many children whose daily lives were, at best, precarious, and, at worst, doomed. “When I think of these children, and I think about my own two children, it makes me weep,” he said.

By this time, I was a pretty jaded journalist, and I was familiar with politicians convincingly spewing BS. But Obama, who had forsaken a budding career in the business world to work as a $13,000-per-year community organizer on Chicago's Far South Side, had the credentials to back up his words. For a Chicago politician, he struck me as uncharacteristically earnest. My later biographical research revealed that that he, indeed, was genuine in this sense of mission when he entered public life -- although, by now, I imagine the depressingly small-minded and cutthroat business of presidential politics probably has jaded him even more than journalism has jaded me.

As I walked to my car after that first extended discussion, I replayed the surprisingly engaging interview in my head. “If this guy can somehow win this race,” I mused, “he won't just be another U.S. Senator.”

Adding to this feeling: Not long before, I learned that David Axelrod had been hired as Obama's lead political consultant. With one of Chicago's shrewdest political minds steering Obama's ship, I suddenly gave Obama a much better chance at winning the primary. So over the course of a few weeks, I gradually began to envision the possibility of a bigger future for him, should he win that race and go off to Washington. So I came out of that interview thinking that I better keep a close eye on him.

Q: How would you rate his performance as president? Is there anything that's particularly surprised you since he's been in the White House?

A: History, of course, will be the final judge of Obama's performance. But in my view, liberals and Democrats can't complain too much about his first term. He seems to be ably nursing an extremely sick economy back to health. He passed health care reform, even though it was politically unpopular. He successfully bailed out the auto industry. He made the tough call to dispatch a team of soldiers to kill Osama bin Laden. As he promised, he's endeavoring to wind down our military conflicts in the Middle East. Yet, in the long run, I sense that his most historically significant achievement might be steering the U.S. from a center-right, anti-government nation back to a more moderate, government-isn't-all-evil center.

Two things have surprised me about his presidency.

First, as a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama consistently fought for habeas corpus protections and individual rights while he was a lawmaker, overriding some aides who cautioned that these stances could damage his political future. Yet, as president, he's flipped on these issues when it comes to the legal rights of terrorism suspects. 

Second, I've been surprised that he hasn't given more memorable public speeches. He's such a gifted writer and orator, and yet his public voice has been more carefully muted than I anticipated. He's proving the accuracy of the adage about politicians campaigning in poetry and governing in prose! (Of course, the day after I wrote this answer to your question, Obama delivered that powerful and moving address in Newtown, Connecticut -- a speech that probably will be remembered well beyond his presidency.)

Q: What, in your opinion, accounts for Obama's political success? Did you think he would win a second term?

A: I've already mentioned his intellect and natural political talent, which shouldn't be underestimated. But those attributes can only take a politician so far if political winds aren't blowing the proper direction. In short, I think Obama has been blessed with enormous political good fortune. First, through a serious of odd events, coupled with smart politics by both Obama and Axelrod, things fell together for him in the Senate race. If that election didn't break his way, it's unlikely that he would have risen out of Chicago politics. But he won, and in so doing, he landed on the national scene at the perfect political moment, just as Democrats and Americans at large were seeking a figure like him -- a fresh, charismatic, consensus-minded politician who was the antithesis of George W. Bush. He had the perfect message of communal unity for 2008, a change election-year that was primed for a Democrat to be elected president.

As for re-election, history shows that unless a president has badly damaged himself politically, voters typically award him a second term. So even with all our political and cultural divisions, and even with inevitable disillusionment among Obama's 2008 true believers, it seems that more than half of Americans find him to be a capable president. However, given that a certain cross-section of the country remains disenchanted with Obama, and that the economy hasn't fully mended, I also think he was beatable if Republicans would have nominated a less-flawed and more moderate candidate. So in that sense, good political fortune found him again.

Q: Obama is a historic figure as the first African-American president, but what else is his legacy likely to include?

A: You're right that Obama is a historic figure simply for breaking the color line around the White House. And that probably will be his most enduring legacy -- the closest thing to a defining moment when American power, political and otherwise, ceased being held almost exclusively by white men.

But beyond race, this is a tough question, for you're asking to predict the future. In Obama's first term, health care reform certainly was a monumental achievement, and I think he'll be given much credit for that legislation. His administration also is making many significant changes in education policy that have not received widespread attention, and perhaps never will. I think he'll also be known as the president who decreased our military presence in the Middle East after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's also entirely possible that an unforeseen event during his second term will shape his legacy in ways that we still don't know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm assembling a proposal for a book that examines Chicago politics. It's an endlessly fascinating subject that I know well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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