- Category: Obama
- Published on 01 October 2010
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The world outlook of Barack Obama before his political career took off in the mid-1990s has been a matter of speculation. His Republican opponents back up their claim that he was – or even still is – a “socialist” by reference to certain hints of an early radicalism, while the same hints have encouraged leftists to place their hopes in him. These speculations pertain mainly to Obama’s time as a student at Columbia University and a community organizer in Chicago (see Timeline below article).
Scarcity of evidence
Clear evidence for assessing the outlook of the young Obama is scarce. He hardly left a paper trail. There is a single article that appears under his name in the Columbia student journal Sundial,1 but it is a descriptive survey of the various anti-war and pro-disarmament groups active on campus and tells us very little of his own opinions. Later he attracted attention as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, and yet he himself never contributed a signed article to this journal.2 Phil Boerner, a close friend at Columbia, recalls how in late-night student discussions Obama “listened carefully to all points of view” and was “funny, smart, thoughtful, and well-liked.”3 Reluctance freely to express his own thoughts – at this stage, perhaps, motivated solely by the desire to be well liked – was to prove an important political asset.
Thus, we have to rely heavily on Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, first published in 1995, which tells the story of his life up to his admission to Harvard Law School in 1988. Like other life stories written by American politicians, the book conveys an impression of frankness and sincerity: intimate feelings are explored, painful family sores laid bare, heart-to-heart conversations reconstructed. But in one crucial respect this is a deceptive impression. How did Obama’s outlook on the world take shape and evolve? Which authors, professors, speakers, or friends had an influence on his thinking?4What were the main issues discussed in those late-night sessions? Here Obama is frustratingly reticent. He does not even say when, where, and on what subject he made his first public speech (see Timeline below for the answer).
Are these topics just not sensational enough for the wide reading public? No doubt, but in the preface to the 2004 edition he acknowledges another major concern when he remarks that “certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research.” So even greater reticence in certain areas might have been in his interest as a budding politician.
I shall return to analyze the political content of these two early Obama texts, but first I would like to examine the story that Obama tells in Dreams from My Father. I shall not try to retrace Obama’s extremely complex biography in detail,5 but rather focus on three specific themes. Two of these are themes that strike me as important – first, the conflicting values that his mother and stepfather taught him as a child in Indonesia; and second, his attitude toward worldly ambition and attraction to community organizing as a vocation. The third theme – the dramatic quest to learn more about his Kenyan father – is one that Obama makes central to his story but may be less significant than it seems.
1961 -- Born to Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr. in Hawaii
1963 (age 2) -- Parents separate. In care of mother and grandparents
1967 (age 6) -- Mother marries Lolo Soetoro. Move to Jakarta, Indonesia
1971 (age 10) -- Sent back to attend school and live with grandparents in Hawaii
1972 (age 11) -- Mother returns to Hawaii with half-sister Maya. Father visits.
1979 (age 18) -- Student at Occidental College, Los Angeles
1981 (age 20) -- In first public speech calls for Occidental’s divestment from South Africa. Transfers to Columbia University in New York, majoring in political science with specialty in international relations. Visits Indonesia, India, and Pakistan.
1982 (age 21) -- Informed of father’s death by relatives in Kenya
1983 (age 22) -- Publishes article in student journal Sundial. Seeks but fails to find job as community organizer. After graduation works as research assistant at Business International Corporation (consulting house to corporations), then at New York Public Interest Research Group
1985 (age 23) -- Community organizer with church-based Developing Communities Project on Chicago’s South Side
1988 (age 26) -- Visits father’s relatives in Kenya. Starts studies at Harvard Law School
1990 (age 28) -- President of Harvard Law Review
1991 (age 29) -- Graduates from Harvard. Starts writing Dreams from my Father (published 1995)
1992 (age 30) -- Returns to Chicago. Joins law firm. Marries Michelle. Directs voter registration project. Starts teaching constitutional law at University of Chicago Law School
1996 (age 34) -- Elected to Illinois State Senate. Start of political career
The two people who had the greatest impact on Obama as a child were his mother Ann Dunham and his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro. His maternal grandparents also played a part in his upbringing, but their influence on him seems to have been somewhat weaker. His parents separated when he was still a baby; his father met him on a visit when he was 11, but the encounter was a brief and awkward one.
Ann Dunham, an anthropologist, was a progressive Democrat in the Rooseveltian tradition, “a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism” (p. 50). In other words, she stood at the “left” pole of the American political mainstream though definitely not outside it. In no sense was she a socialist. She did have a firm commitment to humanitarian values and taught her son to be kind, sympathetic, and generous to others.
The message Barack received from his stepfather was very different. Lolo Soetoro had struggled to survive in a very harsh environment – he married Ann not long after the CIA-backed coup of 1965 and the massacres that followed – and “made his peace with power” (p. 45). He taught the boy that it is necessary for a man, though not perhaps for a woman, to be tough and egoistic. If you give your money away to beggars, he warns, you will end up begging on the streets yourself. “Men take advantage of weakness in other men… The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. He takes the weak man’s woman if he wants her.” So, asks Lolo, which do you want to be – the strong man or the weak man?6
How did Obama cope with these conflicting demands? He tells us that he had great admiration for his stepfather and found his philosophy of life more relevant to the “violent, unpredictable, and often cruel” world that he saw around him (pp. 37-8). And yet he could hardly escape the continued influence of his mother. My conjecture is that he sought to ease the conflict by somehow reconciling power (“strength”) with compassion – a problem that has no fully satisfactory solution.
Obama was much troubled in his youth by questions of identity (“Who am I?”) and life goals (“What do I want to do with my life?”). At this period he was not ambitious in the conventional sense. He wanted to change the world for the better. As a student at Columbia, according to Boerner, he at first wanted to become a writer. Then in 1983 he “decided to become a community organizer” (p. 133) and “mobilize the grass roots” to improve conditions in depressed city areas. He did not want to occupy high office or climb the corporate ladder.
The truth of these assertions is borne out by his behavior. After his first attempts to find a position as a community organizer fail, he takes a job in a corporation, where he feels like “a spy behind enemy lines.” But this is a temporary expedient: Obama still intends to be a community organizer. When he confides his plans to a security guard in the lobby, the man urges him not to try to help others but to stay and “make it” in the corporate world (pp. 135-6). Then a civil rights organization offers him a job, but he turns it down because he dislikes the orientation of the organization toward “forging links with business and government” (pp. 138-9). Eventually he gets a poorly paid job as a community organizer with a church-based project on Chicago’s decaying South Side. Many of the people he meets cannot fathom what he is doing there. Surely a bright young college graduate like him could be doing better for himself?
The crunch came when the opportunity arose for Obama to study law at Harvard with financial aid from a liberal foundation. He realized that this was a turning point in his life. Sensing his unease, his colleagues reassured him7 that they had no bad feelings about him seizing this chance: “We’re just proud to see you succeed” (pp. 275-6).
From then on there would be no turning back. Finally yielding to the expectations of those around him, Obama decided to make it – whatever that might entail.
A skeptical reader might suspect that this account is contrived to put the author in the best possible light. Obama manages to have his cake and eat it: he gets to pursue his ambition, but only after long hesitation has displayed his moral scruples. It reminds me of how Shakespeare’s Caesar does not accept the crown until it is offered to him for the third time.
Obama and Alinsky
How are we to explain Obama’s temporary commitment to community organizing? Why did he consider it the key to progressive social change? Did he develop this idea on his own? If not, where did he get it from? As he does not tell us, we shall have to engage in some guesswork.
The head of the project for which Obama worked in Chicago was a man he calls Marty Kaufman. One “opposition researcher” claims that Marty’s real name was Gerald Kellman and that he was a “follower” of Saul Alinsky (1909—1972). Indeed, Alinsky is widely regarded as a founder of modern community organizing, so whoever “Marty” may have been it is plausible to suppose that Obama’s thinking may have been influenced – directly or indirectly, at Columbia or in Chicago – by ideas that came from Alinsky.
Alinsky set out his ideas in two books – Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, first published in 1946 and 1971, respectively. The primary purpose of these texts is to give radicals, defined as “those filled with deep feeling for people,” practical advice on how to organize communities and stage effective but legal protest actions.
How does Alinsky envision the long-term goal of community organizing? This is hard to say, because he considers it dogmatic and undemocratic for radicals to suggest programs or any ideology “more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare’” (Rules, p. 4).8 The task of radicals is “to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people.” Strategies and goals will emerge spontaneously from the mass movement: “If people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. The alternative to this would be rule by the elite – either a dictatorship or some form of a political aristocracy” (p. 11). Nevertheless, he does specify that power is to be used “for a more equitable distribution of the means of life for all people” (p. 10). He also describes the ultimate goal as “revolution,” which according to him means “equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.”
While his radical-sounding language may well shock the more timid members of the establishment, Alinsky has no clear conception of an alternative society or of how it might be achieved. Community organizers on the ground discover a chasm between the rhetoric and the limits to what community organizing is able to achieve under the pressures of global capitalism. Disillusionment naturally follows. There are indications that Obama went through something like this in Chicago: “Ain’t nothing gonna change, Mr. Obama,” one of his local activists tells him (Dreams from My Father, p. 248).
Although Alinsky rejects the Leninist concept of the vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, he shares some of Lenin’s basic assumptions. He too draws a sharp dividing line between intellectuals capable of abstract thought – the radicals to whom alone his books are addressed – and ordinary people who relate only to their own immediate experience8 and whom the radicals try to organize. He is aware of the dangers inherent in this division but sees no way of overcoming it. His only remedy is to urge radicals to exercise self-restraint.
Obama’s quest for his father
Before Obama starts at Harvard, he makes a trip to Kenya to get to know his relatives on his father’s side and find out more about who his now deceased father was. This is the dramatic culmination of the story that Obama tells about himself in Dreams from My Father. And, of course, the very title of the book implies that his father, with whom he had so little contact during his life, is nonetheless central to his own identity. The reader is told a fair amount about Obama Senior’s background, character, and life story. There is also a great deal that the reader is not told.
Two points bear emphasis.
First, to the extent that Barack’s father serves him as a model, he is more of a negative than a positive model. In conventional terms, Obama Senior was a failure. Unlike Barack’s stepfather, he did not “make his peace with power.” Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first post-independence president, dismissed him from his position as a senior government economist because he was a “troublemaker,” forever protesting against corruption and incompetence. Impoverished and ostracized by former colleagues, many of whom he had helped in the past, he became an embittered alcoholic and wife-beater. The story of his father was a perfect case study for Lolo’s old lesson that generosity and selflessness are a fool’s errand, and surely reinforced Barack’s recent decision to “make it.” From his father he learned ... not to be like his father.
Second, Dreams from My Father is completely silent about the policy aspect of Obama Senior’s work in government and of his difficult relations with Kenyatta and other Kenyan political figures. How did he define his political stance? What did he regard as the chief problems facing Kenya and what development strategy did he advocate to tackle them? What foreign policy did he favor? The reader searches in vain for any enlightenment on such questions. Certainly Barack could have looked into these matters had he so wished. Was he not interested? Perhaps he was but decided not to write about his father’s politics because that would have been “inconvenient politically.” A little research into the subject makes this quite a plausible interpretation.
In 1964, a year after Kenya gained independence from Britain, the Kenyan parliament adopted a blueprint for national planning prepared by the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, entitled African Socialism and Its Applicability to Planning in Kenya.10 The East Africa Journal devoted its July 1965 issue to critiques of this paper; one of the critiques, entitled “Problems Facing Our Socialism,” came from Obama Senior, who had recently returned home from the U.S. after divorcing Ann Dunham.11
“African socialism” was the official ideology of several newly independent African states at that time. As Obama Senior laments, it had no clear definition beyond the general idea of adapting “socialism” to African traditions and conditions. The African tradition considered most compatible with “socialism” was that of communal – that is, clan and tribal – land ownership. However, the doctrine of African socialism was not taken as seriously in Kenya as it was, say, in Tanzania. In this sense, Obama Senior was closer to Nyerere than to Kenyatta. The official planning blueprint was full of evasions and distortions designed to justify or obscure the government’s de facto pursuit of neo-colonialist policies acceptable to the predominantly white and Asian business elite and to the Western powers. In his article, Obama Senior systematically exposes these evasions and distortions, complains of social polarization, the concentration of economic power, and foreign domination, and advocates such policies as creation of clan cooperatives, higher taxation on the rich, development priority for rural areas neglected under colonialism, “Africanization” of managerial personnel, and a consistently non-aligned foreign policy.
What can our president-to-be write about his father’s politics? On the one hand, he dare not express sympathy with an “anti-Western” and “anti-American” viewpoint. On the other hand, repudiating his father’s stance would rather spoil the dramatic plot of reclaiming his African heritage. Much better to say nothing at all.
Political content of early Obama texts
It is helpful to compare Dreams from My Father with Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, which appeared in 2006, when Obama was already in the U.S. Senate, ten years after first running for political office. While the two books are recognizably by the same author, there are clear differences in style and political content.
Audacity fits wholly and comfortably within the confines of mainstream American capitalist discourse. A person who reads it but has not also read Dreams may well ask: “Why are there so many illusions about this guy? He never claims to be anything but a very moderate Democrat.” In fact, Dreams too stays within the confines of mainstream discourse most of the time. Here and there, however, we encounter a passage with a more radical flavor, hinting at a deeper understanding of the systemically unjust and exploitative nature of the existing order.
Thus, in Dreams Obama eloquently explains the misery of Chicago’s South Side as an outcome of the process of capitalist globalization (pp. 183-4). Contrast this with the wholly positive vision of “the globalizing world” that he presents in Audacity (Chapter 8). Another example is in the Epilogue to Dreams, where he calls law – the subject he is now studying – “a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power” (p. 437).
These “radical” passages never go anywhere. No conclusion is ever drawn regarding the need for systemic change. There is simply a jarring reversion to the mainstream discourse. For Obama’s limited radicalism is devoid of any vision of an alternative society. His “hope” is not “audacious” enough to contemplate that possibility! Those who do still believe in revolutionary change are “incurably naïve, wedded to lost hopes” (p. xv).
And yet if we go back far enough, to Obama’s 1983 article in Sundial, we find the following: “One is forced to wonder whether disarmament or arms control issues, severed from political and economic issues, might be another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem rather than the disease itself.” Of course, we cannot decode this sentence without knowing how the author conceives of the “disease” – that is, the political and economic roots of war. And, of course, he does not tell us! But this is perhaps the closest that Obama has ever come to identifying a global malady that requires a cure.
Where does this leave us? There are, I think, sufficient grounds for describing the young Obama as an anti-establishment radical. Not a very radical sort of radical, to be sure – a “radical” who sees existing society for what it is but has no vision of a radically different society. But consider the matter in historical perspective: what other American president has ever emerged from a background that was even a little bit radical? In this sense, Obama is a new phenomenon.
Once the budding politician left behind the company of students and community activists, some of them more radical than he, and started to cultivate slumlords and financiers, his limited radicalism must have rapidly evaporated. It is hard to find evidence that any of it survived his ascent to high office.
1. Barack Obama, “Breaking the War Mentality,” Sundial, March 10, 1983 (http://www.politico.com/PPM116_obamaessay.html).
2. One researcher has attributed an unsigned article on abortion to Obama. It suggests a generally pro-choice position.
3. Phil Boerner, “Barack Obama ’83, My Columbia College Roommate,” Columbia College Today, January/February 2009 (http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct/jan_feb09/alumni_corner).
4. A picture of the intellectual influences on Obama will have to be assembled from diverse sources. Most of them are undoubtedly mainstream. Thus, in an interview in spring 2007 Obama said that one of his favorite philosophers was Reinhold Niebuhr, the “theologian of the U.S. establishment” who insisted on the necessity of using power for “good” ends despite the sin and corruption that it inevitably entailed (Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, pp. 180-82).
5. Obama admits that Dreams from My Father is not completely accurate as an account of his life. He has changed people’s names, created some composite characters, and simplified the chronology here and there. Much more significant is what he chooses to put in and leave out.
6. See Chapter 2 of Dreams from My Father. The crucial conversation between Barack and Lolo is on pages 38—41.
7. Perhaps in recalling this conversation Obama is also reassuring himself.
8. As this quotation suggests, Alinsky’s horizons appear to be confined to the United States.
9. “In mass organization, you can’t go outside of people’s actual experience... You don’t communicate with anyone purely on the rational facts or ethics of an issue” (Rules for Radicals, p. 89).
10. The document was also referred to as “Sessional Paper 10.” The minister who supervised its drafting was Tom Mboya, then one of the most prominent Kenyan politicians.
11. The issue is available at http://www.politico.com/static/PPM41_eastafrica.html.