Obama as Politician

The article in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine that accompanies the tasteless satire on the cover (which we discussed here) does not mention the cover picture and its “satirical” portrayal of Obama and his wife. The subtitle of the article is “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” but the subtext and tone of the article suggests that the purpose of the article is to characterize Obama as an opportunistic, ambitious, calculating politician, ready to oil the political machine that has dominated Chicago for decades. The article mentions Obama’s political moves throughout his career in order to characterize him as a calculating cog in the political system. The author of the piece, Ryan Lizza, writes:

“Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself.”

From Lizza’s perspective, it seems that each move by Obama contained another motive, always with an eye toward moving up to higher political office. Lizza’s point seems to be that this is the work of a typical, if extraordinarily gifted, politician. This is not particularly shocking news, afterall he is running for office within the established political system. Why would anyone be surprised to find that he fits the job description? Lizza also seems to be making the point that Obama has had less than impeccable personal integrity in his relationships with other politicians in Chicago, as in this passage about a former mentor and ally, Toni Preckwinkle, a city Alderman:

“… in 2004 Preckwinkle supported Obama during his improbable, successful run for the United States Senate. So it was startling to learn that Toni Preckwinkle had become disenchanted with Barack Obama.”

Preckwinkle feels Obama has been disloyal to his base of devoted supporters in Chicago, and she is particularly disaffected with Obama because he failed to endorse a local candidate that she supported. Seems like politics as usual. Yet, Lizza treats it as if he’s uncovering a scandal. Lizza continues in this “uncovering” style in his writing as he sets up the rest of the piece this way:

“Obama likes to discuss his unusual childhood—his abandonment by his father and his upbringing by a sometimes single mother and his grandparents in Indonesia and Hawaii—and the three years in the nineteen-eighties when he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, periods of his life chronicled at length in his first memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” He occasionally refers to his time in the United States Senate, which he wrote about in his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” But his life in Chicago from 1991 until his victorious Senate campaign is a lacuna in his autobiography. It is also the period that formed him as a politician.

The fact that Obama has left this period unexamined in his books or campaign literature, Lizza seems to suggest, makes this all the more important. The big take away from all this reporting is summarized by Lizza like this:

“Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.”

And, despite the teaser in the introduction to the piece about Preckwinkle’s disillusionment with Obama, most of the other people quoted in the article have good things to say about the candidate. For example, political consultant David Axelrod, recognized Obama’s potential to bring opposing sides together in bipartisan agreement and his natural charisma. He’s quoted in the article saying:

“He met people not just in the African-American community but in the progressive white community.”

Lizza interviews another close friend, Bettylu Saltzman, who recalls:

“I honestly don’t remember what it was about him, but I was absolutely blown away, I said to several people that this guy, who is now thirty years old, is someday going to be President. He will be our first black President.”

While some in the blogosphere call this article “great,” we see it differently. The combined effect of the cover image, the investigative tone of the article, and the association of Obama with the seamy world of Chicago politics, converge to create an overall negative impression of Obama as both a person and a politician. The article is, overall, emphasizing Obama’s readiness to embrace the political system that every other politician makes use of; yet, it does little to explore his policies and practices that more accurately speak to what kind of president he will become.

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe


  1. KC


    Thanks for linking to my post! After reading your response, I took your thoughts into consideration, reflected on the New Yorker article itself, and then edited my original post. I did however, post a response in my comments section.

    Good luck with your research.


  2. mordy

    As long as the reporter backs the assertions with facts, isn’t it well within his/her purview to arrive at a conclusion you might not agree with? I don’t think every article should portray Obama as a saint. The issues explored in this article might be useful to some to weigh against many other media portrayals that have elevated Obama to nearly a deity. I mean nothing ill toward Obama, but i do think some people forget that he has had to navigate through the tough chicago political waters. Further, i would say it is fair to look at other aspects of his candidacy / background aside from his policies. Again, as long as the reporter is even-handed and backing the research with fact. It should then be left up to the reader to judge its relative importance.

  3. mordy

    Additionally, no reportage can accurately speak to what kind of president he, or anybody else, will become. I don’t think that is a fair measurement to critique any article.

  4. KC

    I totally agree.

    For me, I would criticize the article for it’s failure to be critical of a political system that requires it’s candidates to compromise their true beliefs; not for giving an “overall negative impression” of Obama.

    I am very proud that our society has progressed to the point where a Black candidate has a real shot at becoming president. However, if we want to talk about Obama’s policies which might “more accurately speak to the kind of president he will become” I have to say, the results are extremely disheartening to progressives. He is not an anti-war candidate, as his recent comments show he is willing to leave Iraq and move military action to Iran and Afghanistan. His health plan is not a true, single-payer universal system that would remove the profit motive that is killing millions of Americans every day. He hasn’t really taken any substantive stance on reforming our broken criminal justice system.

    Thus, I can again only echo Obama’s own statements when I say his campaign is disturbing to those of us who care about certain issues, but politically fascinating nonetheless.

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