In seeking to probe the very essence of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss has easily managed to upset the entire White House. Now, with the publication of Barack Obama: The Story, and the 2012 election looming just on the horizon, Maraniss is hoping that his careful exploration of the forces that have helped shape the nation’s first black president will have readers everywhere snapping up copies of his voluminous new tome.
We talked with the author about what makes Obama tick, the nature of his “cool” and who might be sitting in the Oval Office come January.
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What do you want people to understand about Obama?
The focus of my book, and what I want people to understand [about Barack Obama] is how he had a very long and interesting search for his own identity. The book is really two things: It’s the world that shaped him, and then how he tried to shape himself. He came out of a dysfunctional situation where he didn’t have a father. His mother was loving, but not always there. He was half-white and half-black in a world in where that was not easy. All of these factors played on him in different ways. So, there’s race and family, as well as the search for family.
How does all that affect the kind of chief executive he’s been?
I think he had such a long and honest search to figure himself out. And he basically did it, and that’s sort of the climax of the book. It’s him figuring himself out. He did that, and sort of had the attitude, “Well, if I can do it, why can’t the rest of the world?” Why can’t society? Why can’t politics? And so, that explains some of his caution, it explains some of his efforts to get to nonpartisanship. And it explains some of his frustrations with the political process.
How aware, do you think, is the president of criticism from people who nevertheless support him?
I think he’s completely aware of everything. You don’t become president without having a fine political antenna. He and his people are completely aware of all the responses from people who were supportive of him and who are now a little bit leery of him, as well as people who never liked him. They’ve got all of that gauged pretty thoroughly, and the president is part of that. He has larger things to deal with than just trying to police all the people that once liked him but are now questioning him.
Knowing the president’s story so well, what do you anticipate from a second term in office should he win re-election in November?
Some people never change and only become more so of what they are. I think that Barack Obama is a different sort of character. He does tend to repeat certain aspects of his personality. But he’s also a learner and a student of whatever he has to deal with. So, I think aside from whatever the political factors that he can’t control are in his second term, I think he’ll be a smarter president in that second term.
What are the president’s best and worst qualities?
He’s a rational human being in an irrational, or an increasingly irrational, society. He can appear a bit cool and arrogant. And…I don’t know, sort of have a sense of destiny that might be a little too much. I think those are the qualities that define him.
What about the president struck you the most after interviewing him face-to-face?
We talked for about an hour-and-a-half. I think he’s fascinating, complex, intelligent and a little bit cool.
Some applaud that coolness, how do you describe it?
It cuts both ways. He’s cool under pressure, too. He doesn’t meet people the way [former President] Bill Clinton did. Clinton was narcissistic in that sense. He set off people and had to have them around. He was hot, and Obama is cool, and much more self sufficient. And that can work to his favor or disfavor depending on the situation. Clinton was better at the give-and-take of politics and legislative BS-ing and figuring out ways of getting things done. Obama tries to go about things in a different way.
Prior to Obama, you wrote acclaimed books about Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi and Bill Clinton. Is there a common feature among these personalities that attracts you?
I think there is a commonality in terms of all of these individuals. They have enormous will to succeed. They’ve overcome obstacles. As different as they are in so many other ways, that’s what binds them. And often with quote-unquote great men of that sort, there are imbalances in their lives that are created by that drive to succeed. What drew me to each of them was that there was both a dramatic arc to their life stories and some major themes that I could weave through that arc of the life.
What goes into the making of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?
Luck! The prize-winning part of it is nice, but that’s not how you define a great journalist, a good journalist, or a journalist. What goes into it is a lot of hard work and thinking, and trying to figure things out, and getting beyond the conventional wisdom and finding your own path. It’s all of that. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.
Do you think Obama will win re-election?
It’s going to be a close election. I wouldn’t underestimate him. I remember when my book on Bill Clinton came out everybody said that he was going to be a one-term president. But my study of his life indicated that he would figure his way around that and win re-election. Circumstances have changed considerably. Obama’s not Clinton, but I still have that sense he’ll probably figure it out.