“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 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 the presidential campaign, with fascinating descriptions of Obama cramming before important speeches and his tough, often underhanded, battle with Hillary Clinton. The problem is that while everyone following the election seemed to be mesmerised by the bright lights of Obama’s campaign, Wolffe seems to have been completely blinded by the lights. “He was a political upstart,” he gushes. “The candidate code-named Renegade by the secret service repeatedly broke the rules.” So for all his primary source material and insider knowledge, his conclusions mirror the message of Obama’s public relations machine.
Despite this fatal flaw, Wolffe occasionally, and often unwittingly, points up a different Obama to the one presented to the public by a pliant media. The election of the first African-American president is, of course, an historic event. But have we forgotten that the Bush administration, with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, was the most ethnically diverse in US history? As the American dissident William Blum says: “Forget colour. Forget ethnicity. Forget gender. Forget sexual orientation. Forget the class the person comes from. Look at the class they serve.”
Who does Obama serve? As Wolffe says: “Contrary to their carefully cultivated image, the money did not grow at the grassroots.” In fact Obama set corporate fundraising records, trouncing Clinton and then John McCain in getting big money to support his campaign. Only the most naïve would believe they won’t be expecting something in return from their investment.
Throughout this book Obama, and Wolffe, are both prone to mention the influence of Martin Luther King on the candidate. One wonders what the civil rights leader would have made of Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Defending his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, he argued that the United States should be “a continuing force for good in the world – something that we have been for decades.” Compare this with King, in 1967, saying 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 programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
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. Moreover, is inside access and co-operation really the best way to gain an understanding of those in positions of 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, the American historian Paul Street, in his book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, examines “the corporate-dominated and militaristic US elections system and political culture.” From this perspective Street reaches very different conclusions to Wolffe. Instead of a “renegade” and “rule breaker” Street finds a “relatively conservative, capitalism- and corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and empire-friendly centrist.”
Obama’s record during his first year in office – his unpopular surge in Afghanistan and his struggles on healthcare and climate change – show Street‘s analysis, not Wolffe’s, is bang on the money. If the man whose presidential campaign was full of slogans about “hope” and “change” 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.”