Obama is calculating but earnest, new book says

Mike Ramsey

A book released today (Tuesday) about U.S. Sen. Barack Obama portrays the Democratic presidential contender as an earnest but surprisingly calculating politician who has grappled with his celebrity status.

David Mendell’s 400-page biography, “Obama: From Promise to Power,” traces Obama’s origins as a mixed-race youth growing up in Hawaii to his rise as a Chicago state lawmaker and his February 2007 declaration as a White House hopeful. Mendell, a Chicago Tribune reporter, shadowed Obama during his successful run for U.S. Senate in 2004 as the candidate became a “rock star” virtually overnight.

The author acknowledges a number of positive Obama traits, including his “abiding sense of social and economic justice.” But the book offers occasional unflattering anecdotes and this frank assessment:

“What the public has yet to see clearly is (Obama’s) hidden side: his imperious, mercurial, self-righteous and sometimes prickly nature ... He is an extraordinarily ambitious, competitive man with persuasive charm and a career reach that seems to have no bounds.”

The Harvard Law School graduate is far more politically driven than his calm, bridge-building public persona would suggest, according to the book. It recounts how the former community organizer effectively elbowed out a state senator in 1996 for her legislative seat. Obama sought a promotion to congressman in 2000, but lost to incumbent Bobby Rush in a humbling primary defeat.

In late 2002, Obama was jockeying for position, too, when he gave a speech opposing the anticipated U.S. invasion of Iraq during an anti-war rally organized by lakefront liberal Bettylu Satlzman, Mendell writes.

He said Obama wanted Saltzman’s support and hoped she would encourage political consultant David Axelrod to help with his potential U.S. Senate bid.

Obama emphasized at the event he was not against all wars, the author notes, but his stance on Iraq would pay huge political dividends when the American occupation later went poorly.

Obama’s presidential campaign declined to comment on the book, other than to disagree with the inference that the senator was trying to pander with his 2002 speech. The campaign indicated Obama already had the support of Saltzman and Axelrod.

The book also says Obama’s initial public reticence about running for president belied his private maneuvering. The day after he won the general election for U.S. Senate, Obama told Chicago reporters he would not seek the Oval Office in the next election. Soon, however, Obama’s advisers were crafting a detailed plan to put him “in the strongest form possible” for the 2007-08 cycle, the book reports.

The senator’s upward trajectory has caused stress in his family life, the biography says.

Mendell writes that Obama has struggled to balance his Washington career with his obligations to his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, back home in Chicago. The juggling proved physically exhausting as Obama wrote his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” but he was intent on making his family financially secure, the book says.

The biography also portrays Obama, who once sought media attention when he was an unknown, as an increasingly cloistered — though savvy — politician. Mendell recounts how Obama deftly seized iconic photo opportunities as the senator traveled to his ancestral continent of Africa in a highly publicized 2006 visit.

Messages were left Monday with Axelrod, who became an architect of Obama’s national career, and Robert Gibbs, the communications director for Obama’s presidential campaign. Both men are quoted in the book and are central figures in it.

Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said he has not read the new Obama book. But he said, barring scandalous disclosures, such political bios have a tendency to reinforce the negative or positive perceptions an individual voter may have about a candidate.

“Overall, it’s a plus — it’s free publicity in terms of people talking about the candidate,” Redfield said. “If there’s nothing crushing in terms of bombshells, it fills in the texture and makes somebody look more human.”

Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or ghns-ramsey@sbcglobal.net.