“You’ll get more access than anyone else”, Barack Obama told British journalist Richard Wolffe at the beginning of his bid for the White House in 2007.
And access Wolffe certainly got, following Obama from the first day of his presidential campaign to the last, interviewing the candidate one-to-one on more than a dozen occasions, and conducting numerous interviews with his closest aides, friends and family.
From this front-row seat Wolffe has created a lively account of the highs and lows of the Democratic primaries and presidential campaign, with fascinating descriptions of Obama cramming before important speeches and his tough, often underhanded, political battle with Hillary Clinton.
The problem is that while everyone following the 2008 presidential election seemed to be mesmerised by the bright lights of Obama’s presidential campaign, by being that much closer Wolffe seems to have been completely blinded by the lights. “He was a political upstart” gushes Wolffe. “The candidate named Renegade by the secret service, and he repeatedly broke rules.” So for all his primary source material and insider knowledge, disappointingly Wolffe’s conclusions largely mirror the message of Obama’s first-rate PR machine.
Despite this fatal flaw, the 356 pages occasionally (and often unwittingly) contain material that points to a different Barack Obama to the one that has been presented to the public by a pliant media.
Firstly there is there is the issue of race, which Wolffe, good liberal that he is, largely treats as a one-dimensional issue. The election of the first African-American president to the White House is, of course, a historic event. But have we forgotten that the Bush Administration, with Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, was the most ethnically diverse in history? As the American dissident William Blum says: ““America, the world, have to grow up. Forget colour. Forget ethnicity. Forget gender. Forget sexual orientation. Forget even the class the person comes from. Look at the class they serve.”
Who does Obama serve? Wolffe hints at the truth: “Contrary to their carefully cultivated image, the money did not grow at the grassroots”. This is a gross understatement – Obama set corporate fundraising records, trouncing Clinton and then John McCain in getting big money to support his campaign. And I mean Big money. Obama raised $745 million (McCain raised $368 million), with much of the cash coming from the finance, insurance and real estate sectors. Not only is it highly unlikely these big corporate donors have propelled a renegade in to the most powerful elected office in the world, but only the most naïve would believe they won’t be expecting something in return from their investment.
Throughout the book, Obama, and Wolffe, are both prone to mention the influence of Martin Luther King on the candidate. However, one wonders what the civil rights leader would have made of Obama’s recent Nobel Prize winning speech. Defending his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, Obama argued the United States should be “a continuing force for good in the world – something that we have been for decades.” Compare this, with King’s 1967 statements that the “United States was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Reading Renegade, it is clear political biography, with its inevitable focus on the personal qualities and behaviour of the individual politician, is a particularly limited and poor method of historical enquiry. This is especially evident when writing about something as complex and powerful as the race for the American presidency. Moreover, is inside access and cooperation really the best way to gain an understanding of those in positions of great power? As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano notes “In general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions, but to disguise them.”
Rather than concentrating on Obama as an individual, in his indispensable book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, the American historian and activist Paul Street looks at “the corporate-dominated and militaristic US elections system and political culture.” From this alternative perspective Street reaches very different conclusions to Wolffe. Instead of a “renegade” and “rule breaker”, Street finds a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist.”
Obama’s record during his first year in office – his unpopular surge in Afghanistan and ineffective moves on healthcare and climate change – show Street‘s analysis, not Wolffe‘s, is bang on the money. So if the man whose presidential campaign was full of slogans about ‘change’ and ‘hope’ is unable to produce significant change, what is to be done? For once, I believe Obama (speaking before he was president) has the answer: “Change in America doesn’t happen from the top down. It comes from the bottom up.”
Renegade. The Making of Barack Obama by Richard Wolffe is published by Virgin Books, priced £17.99.