The Obama Question [book review]
May 28, 2012

The Obama Question [book review]

Gary Dorrien's book, The Obama Question, makes, as its central thesis, the following point: From a progressive perspective, much of Obama's presidency has been a failure for which he has received ample criticism for his centrism, for his capitulations, and for his lack of leadership. Despite this, he argues, Obama's presidency has had significant accomplishments (from healthcare to stimulus to financial reform) to which he deserves both some credit and some optimism for the future. At its core it is an argument about the appropriate tone, and a call for action during election season to a demoralized progressive base.

This is a tone I find to be broadly correct. So many cases for Obama refuses to critisize him too much and what criticism exists usually is not from the progressive perspective. Conversely, there is a defeatism and resent from much of the progressive community over Obama's disappointments that engenders, at the very least, an apathy that displaces voter turnout. I do find Dorrien to be overly soft on some issues (such as civil liberties to which the Obama administration is objectively worse than the Bush administration), however he does shed some light on the issues of realpolitik that resulted in the kinda of tepid healthcare reform that we got.

The book is largely descriptive, simply describing the details of the major events in Obama's candidacy and presidency, although it also devotes a smaller percentage of time to arguing for the above thesis. Considerable time is spent simply going over the details of what happened on issues such as healthcare reform or the financial regulations bills - arguably the biggest landmarks of the Obama presidency.

Throughout the book is an attempt to understand Obama the man, what makes him tick, and why he acted as he did. There is a useful biography of Obama's life that soft of touches on the keypoints from Obama's own autobiography, Dreams of my Father. There is some value in this; understanding the person does shed light on the formation of policies. That said, while my understanding of Obama has increased, I do find really getting at what makes people tick to be considerably harder of a problem than analyzing the policy outcomes and events and cannot say - after four years of following Obama, and this book in addition - that I have much to say confidently on Obama the person outside of dismissing the overly simply narratives of Obama that many try to portray.

While I had been loosely engaged in political discussion and news for some time beforehand, I can pinpoint with some certainty the time period when I became "politically conscious" to the point that I was following day to day political news. I have no real memories of the 2008 Democratic primary contest, and all my knowledge from that time at have acquired after the fact. However, I did follow the general contest closely, watching all the debates between Obama and McCain, arguing extensively on Internet forums, and the like. And I have followed politics ever since, starting this blog a little under two years ago.

One of the interesting personal aspects of the Obama Question is that it is the first time that I have read a book that covers, in considerable detail, a period in time and a subject to which I was intimately involved and following. Typically, my reading has involved other places or times so that I can learn about new subjects. This has been a worthwhile exercise. It had a feel somewhat like often occurs at the end of a university course when one goes back to review the entire course material to study for the exam and one finds that the earlier material - the details of which are often forgotten - is put into a new perspective  and one's understanding of the material wholistically is significantly improved.

Time is a funny thing, because it creates two competing biases in our thinking. On the one hand, we remember the details of things that happened recently far better than things that happened long ago and, consequently, tend to overemphasize their importance in our thinking. On the other hand, opinions that are deep seated and have become entrenched and matured over time have more importance in our heads than the shallow, new opinions that are just forming. Reading a book that spans a couple years in detail helps to smooth out the influence of these biases by both recalling the details that have been forgotten and by allowing to test newer ideas against this older data. It helps to create a more objective and balanced opinion over this longer period of time.

The end result of these factors was that reading the Obama Question was a very beneficial experience that consolidated much of the last couple years of my active political life together, brought in new ideas, and tied several loose ends together. Whether this book is significantly better than others that cover the first couple years of Obama's presidency I can't say, although writing from the progressive perspective is sufficiently rare that this is likely among the best books in its category. 

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