Who is Barack Obama?

“If Illinois isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, its certainly one hell of a competitor”, said FBI agent Robert Grant at a press conference this week (December 9, 2008.) He was talking about investigating Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to” sell “ Barack Obama’s Senate seat, a manoeuvre which vividly illustrates the political cesspit out of which the president — elect has come, though he apparently was not involved in this scandal.

Until now, we have paid little attention to the political background of the next president of the United States. Two recent books can help.

Obama From Promise to Power by biographer, David Mendell, celebrates the man’s achievements while The Case Against Barack Obama – the Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media’s Favourite Candidate, by David Freddoso, poses difficult questions which require answers.

The man who emerges is an extraordinarily intelligent individual, who because he saw himself as “ an orphan” needs the adulation of the crowds, but also his own space .A skilled poker player,self absorbed, tough and ruthless, he is friendly with questionable developers, violent terrorists and racist preachers, but is prepared to admit his own mistakes and is a highly disciplined night owl.

Mendell is a Chicago Tribune journalist. His book describes the relationship between that newspaper and Obama thus : “His loving treatment by the Chicago Tribune, the region’s most influential newspaper”

Mendell’s biography takes us from Obama’s birth up to his declaration for the presidency in February 2007. Freddoso writes for the online version of the National Review from a conservative perspective, but relatively fairly. From that perspective his book takes the story up to June 2008 with an individual chapter on all the key issues — the Chicago machine, Obamessiah, Obama in Illinois, and then in Washington, his liberal, radical ,and religious influences, abortion, and crucially his relationships with property developers.

Obama’s maternal grandmother,started work as a bank secretary and ended as bank vice president. His mother was brilliant ,” a secular humanist and an avowed New Deal Peace Corps, loving liberal”. His father was also brilliant, a charming storyteller ( he was a “medicine man” in Kenya) and was part of the first wave of African students to study in the US. Although successful in college and later he had problems, with alcohol and in meeting the high expectations for him.

Obama had significant unease about his racial identity for part of his early life. Mendell, clearly implies that one of the key attractions of his wife, Michelle , was her unambiguous, black identity. In later years, his ability to fit in with whites and blacks is a key strength. Travelling in his early political days in conservative white central and southern Illinois ,Obama was very well received: “These mostly white, middle -class, down to-earth Midwestern people reminded him of his grandparents and he felt completely comfortable in their midst. And that comfort, obviously, was reciprocated.”

“I understand, these folks”, Obama told me [Mendell] on a downstate campaign trip, during his U.S. Senate race.” My grandmother was a Republican. I grew up with these people.”

His success in dealing with sensitive race issues, was particularly evident when he addressed the Hurricane Katrina issue. His articulated the problems well from a white and a black perspective. However, Freddoso points out that Obama voted twice against reallocating funds from other legislators’ pet projects to shoring up the levees in New Orleans and rebuilding the city.

One of the most interesting clues to the Obama White House was how he handled being elected president of the Harvard Law Review, America’s prestige legal journal. Obama won with the support of conservatives and was the first black to do so . His tenure as Review president, foreshadowed his future political style : a belief in giving attention to people with views other than his own, a desire to reach across the aisle to form consensus;and a tendency to disappoint people in his own crowd — blacks and progressives — by not being more strident in his demeanour or behaviour.

Despite this grumbling the Review ran rather peacefully under Obama, especially considering how bitter the previous internal politics and feuding had been: “It was a fractious, headstrong bunch. And he led the group with considerable skill and finesse “, said Brad Berenson,a conservative classmate, Obama bid for the US presidency was also carefully planned, organised, and financed. ”The plan”, as it was called , was formalised on a computer file, and was consistently updated as events occurred.

In response to a loaded question from a reporter, Obama responds: “How do you really expect me to answer that? If I told you how I really felt, I ‘d be committing political suicide right here in front of you.” Mendell concludes: “I found his candor refreshing. But it also told me something. Even if he was driven by an activist heart, he was no radical. Rather, he was a polished professional politician who knew that despite being a community organiser and staunch do-gooder, as a U.S. Senate candidate, he was now working from within the establishment.”

By contrast, David Freddoso devotes an entire chapter to Obama ‘s dealings with property developers – titled Pinstripe Patronage – Obama Takes Care of his Friends, and backs his accusations with evidence. While funding of American politics is very different from that in Ireland, most Irish readers of this chapter will not feel comfortable. As Mendell shows, money became quite important to Obama after the Democratic National Convention in 2000. It also was, and presumably is important to his wife particularly because of her concerns about Obama getting shot.

The political time bomb surrounding the financing of state-subsidised, low-income housing in the US will tarnish Obama significantly if and when it blows up. Freddoso also goes into some detail on his relationships with radicals (which are quite bad),his black racist religious influences , and his uniquely” liberal “voting record on abortion.
Freddoso’s summary on Obama is clear:”It’s not that Barack Obama is a bad person. It’s just that he’s like all the rest of them. Not a reformer. Not a Messiah. Just like all the rest of them in Washington…

“Obama’s radical ties don’t make him a radical. His ties to communists don’t make him a communist. His ties to a terrorist don’t even remotely make him a terrorist…

These connections do not disqualify Obama from the presidency. But they do raise questions about his judgement…

What sort of appointments will such a man make as president? What kind of diplomacy does he pursue, given that so much of diplomacy consists in reading, understanding, and judging others’ intentions and character?”

These are legitimate questions, which at this point, must be considered open with respect to President- elect Barack Obama.

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