Yesterday I wrote that while the 2012 election will be decided on the state of the economy and whether Americans want four more years of President Obama, it is worth having a discussion of Dreams From My Father and how he told his life story to the American people — and whether that self-portrait is accurate: “Obama’s autobiography was a big, big part of his 2008 campaign, and it was how he introduced himself to the American people. And yet it was . . . by the author’s own admission, not accurate.”
It’s not like President Obama was elected because of a broad and impressive array of legislative accomplishments. It was his life story — the mixed-race post-partisan healer, who rose from humble, troubled beginnings to devote himself to improving his community and public service — that won over the public.
Now it appears that this discussion is precisely what the White House wants to avoid:
The product of [David Maraniss'] big dig, “Barack Obama: The Story,” seems to be a nuanced, even sympathetic portrayal culled from people who still admire Obama. Yet, make no mistake, this is a dangerous book for Obama, and White House staffers have been fretting about it in a low-grade way for a long, long time — in part because it could redefine the self-portrait Obama skillfully created for himself in 1995 with “Dreams from My Father.”
The success of “Dreams” has given Obama nearly complete control of his own life narrative, an appealing tale that has been the foundation of his political success. But Maraniss’s biography threatens that narrative by questioning it: Was Obama’s journey entirely spiritual and intellectual? Or was it also grounded in the lower realms of ambition and calculation?
. . . There are some signs the president himself is concerned. In fact, Obama was so intent on having his side of the story convincingly articulated, he granted the author a virtually unprecedented 90-minute Oval Office interview, twice the allotted time Maraniss thought he was getting.
“I can’t think of a historical example of a biography like this being particularly consequential. The only example is ‘Dreams from My Father,’” said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history and journalism professor who chronicled Richard Nixon’s image in the media.
“That gave many people a first impression of Obama, won over a lot people. It was the vessel of a lot of the Kool-Aid that got drunk in 2008, creating a fantasy Obama that many people wanted to believe in. . . . I don’t think there are many people who are going to radically revise their impression of Obama” this time, he added.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, senior advisers to Hillary Clinton complained that they weren’t running against Obama the guy, his record, his policies or even his résumé, which they viewed with contempt as too thin to sustain a respectable national candidacy. No, the opponent they were facing was Obama’s narrative — a supremely powerful political marketing tool for a candidate whose mixed racial and class background served as a metaphor for American unity at one of the country’s most precarious moments.
“We’re not running against a real person,” one of them said at the time. “We are running against a story.”
(Fascinating that Maraniss titled his book “Obama: The Story.”)
What happens when it turns out that the story isn’t true?