Obama unmasked

What's going wrong for the man who would be president? Our US editor Andrew Stephen reports from Was

We at the New Statesman must take some of the blame, I suppose. Barack Obama had been a senator for just ten months in 2005 when we devoted a cover to his face, anointing him as one of ten people likely to have an impact on the world. It was only during 2007, however, that the American media fell head-over-heels in love with Obama; when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party caucuses in Iowa on 3 January, it seemed that the electorate was swooning in a headlong rush to the altar with Obama, too. By the end of the first week of the '08 presidential election year, the media had all but handed over the keys to the White House to him.

So it all came as a shock to the pundits and pollsters on the night of 8 January when, despite predictions of an overwhelming Obama triumph, it became clear that the voters of New Hampshire had given Hillary Clinton the victory over Obama she badly needed. The reason for the media's distortions, I believe, is that Obama's relationship with the press and the electorate is still at the stage of starry-eyed infatuation. Yes, he is a mesmerising political orator who offers a magic elixir that somehow contains both stimulants and sedatives: that we need not worry about the present or future, because we can look forward to a new dawn of hope and reassurance in the safe hands of President Obama. Exactly how and why this would happen is not clear, but it is heady and exciting stuff.

I suspect that the longer the relationship continues, however, the more Obama's many faults and shortcomings as a presidential candidate will emerge. In his speech admitting defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, for example, a hint of his bad-tempered haughtiness emerged. He is not the fresh-faced young idealist the media like to portray, but a hard-headed 46-year-old lawyer whose monumental drive and political calculations make the Clintons seem like a pair of amateurs. The media and electorate may have fallen in love with him spontaneously, but Obama has been carefully plotting his strategy to seduce them for decades.

A little "blow"

Even dedicated political operators such as the Clintons, for example, did not publish self-promoting memoirs at the age of 33 - but that is exactly what Obama did, revealing his use of cocaine ("a little blow") before anybody else could beat him to it, for example. In those memoirs, Dreams from My Father, he burnished a personal and political résumé that, in places, seemed almost unbelievable - so I was not surprised to read in his introduction to the reissued edition of "selective lapses of memory" and "the temptation to colour events in ways favourable to the writer".

I'll provide two brief examples of how Obama did just that. He wrote movingly of a turning point in his life when, as a nine-year-old, he read in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin". But the Chicago Tribune - it and the Chicago Sun-Times being honourable exceptions to the media quiescence I have described - reported that "no such Life issue exists", and an exhaustive search of similar magazines failed to find any article remotely similar to the one Obama had described. The Obama media machine, too, obligingly enabled television crews this month to interview Obama's very elderly Kenyan "grandmother"; the only problem was that the woman in rural Kenya was not Obama's grandmother, but the alleged foster mother of Obama's father. "Give me a break . . . this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," huffed Bill Clinton, visiting Dartmouth College on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, telling his audience the US media are not being tough enough on Obama.

Politically, there is remarkably little difference between the three leading Democrats - Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 and did not therefore vote for the resolution that authorised the invasion of Iraq. But he has not been the sainted man of peace his supporters portray, either. In his three years in the Senate he has kept his head safely below the parapet, leaving two congressional colleagues - Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania - to spearhead opposition to the war on Capitol Hill. In 2006 he voted against a Senate resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops and has also voted to continue funding the war.

Most recently, he said he would not hesitate to send US troops into Pakistan without Pakistan's permission to hunt down terrorists, and he insists that the US must not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs". He wants the military to "stay on the offensive, from Djibouti to Kandahar" and to increase defence expenditure. Like most identikit US mainstream politicians, he talks of "rogue nations" and "hostile dictators", and says the US must maintain "a strong nuclear deterrent" and be ready to "seize" the "American moment". He appeared to support Israel's attack on Lebanon, but then said "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" - which, in turn, he denied saying.

In the meantime he let his mentor and fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, swing alone in the wind after Durbin - perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the Senate - compared US interrogation techniques of prisoners in Guantanamo with those of the Soviet Union, Nazis and Khmer Rouge. He voted to reauthorise the Bush administration's repressive Patriot Act, and says that as president he would not rule out a US first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.

His equivocations and contradictions thus proliferate. He promised solemnly on coast-to-coast live television on NBC in 2006 that he would complete his six-year Senate term and definitely not run for the presidency. He voted in favour of President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. I am not the first to see Obama's self-portrayal as almost Christlike: a young black man is tormented by racism and gets into drugs, and only his own inner goodness rescues him from the ghettos to which he was surely consigned. Human foibles - that he smokes and likes playing poker, for example - are determinedly kept under wraps.

Dysfunctional

The sad point of all this is that the reality of his life is actually much more fascinating than the manufactured version. His background is strikingly dysfunctional but by no means economically underprivileged. His eccentric white American mother met his Kenyan father when both were students at the University of Hawaii, but like so many male politicians - Bill Clinton, for one - his father, an alcoholic who ended up fathering several families before being killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982, was literally and figuratively absent from his life. He abandoned Obama and his mother to take up a scholarship at Harvard when the young Barack was a toddler. So much for his Kenyan "relatives".

His mother, who died in 1995, subsequently remarried an Indonesian student destined to become an oil company executive, and the newlyweds took the young Obama to live in Jakarta when he was six. He duly attended a local school that the Fox News channel gleefully but inaccurately labelled a madrasa. His middle name, like his father's, is Hussein - though Obama insists that his father was not, in fact, a Muslim but an atheist. The adult Obama now attends the evangelical Trinity United Church of Christ in Chi cago and says he is a devout Christian.

The young Obama acquired a half-sister when he lived in Jakarta (she is now a Buddhist), but his mother sent him to live permanently with his white grandparents in Honolulu when he was ten. He then began a new, elitist life that even he describes as "a childhood dream": surfing in Hawaii and attending the renowned private Punahou School, founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841 and known to local people as a school for the haole (whites). Its annual tuition today costs $15,725.

Far from being the brilliant student his image suggests, Obama was a consistently B-grade pupil. He went on to attend Occidental College, a perfectly respectable private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, but hardly an academic powerhouse; its present-day endowment is $377m. He transferred to Columbia University in New York and completed his degree there, and finally graduated with a degree from Harvard Law School at the age of 30. His upwardly mobile ascent had begun, and Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He began his professional political career when he stood successfully for the Illinois General Assembly (the state senate) in 1996.

Here we come to one of the major contradictions between Obama's image and reality. The media, both here and in Britain, assume that Obama has the black vote sewn up - a Daily Telegraph columnist, with stupendous racism, casually asserted on Monday that Hillary Clinton has lost an opportunity because American blacks now "have one of their own to support" - but Obama is regarded with suspicion by most African Americans. My postman, for example, screws up his face with disdain at the mere mention of Obama's name. He alienated much of the black political Establishment in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent congressman for an Illinois district, Representative Bobby Rush - a former Black Panther and current leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His congressional district has more black people than any other in the country, and Obama lost to Rush by 31 points.

In a career that has seemed - until now, at least - to be unstoppable, he nonetheless went on to win the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate in 2004. The seat was being vacated by a retiring Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, but Obama had a tremendous stroke of luck: the former wife of his strong Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, made sordid allegations about their sex life and Ryan was forced to drop out. He was replaced by Alan Keyes, a former black activist and diplomat who had morphed into a figure of the far right and become one of America's fully paid-up political lunatics. Obama, having won national attention for the first time by delivering the keynote address at John Kerry's Democratic coronation convention in Boston the previous July, won by a 70-27 per cent landslide.

Which brings us back to his entry to the Senate in 2005 and our cover of him less than ten months later. Part of Obama's contrived sainthood is an undertaking that he will not take funds from lobbyists or political action committees. But, like the Clintons and just about any other American politician, he has assiduously done just that. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $78,615,215 and Obama $78,915,507; Obama's campaign has relied heavily on people such as Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager who reportedly earned $1.4bn last year.

The further away you get from Chicago, though, the more the saintly image takes hold. Publications like the New Yorker may coo for pages over "the conciliator", but the two Chicago newspapers are much more interested in Obama's close 17-year friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a long-time Obama donor and property developer awaiting trial on charges of attempted extortion, money laundering and fraud. A low-income housing project received more than $14m from taxpayers while Obama was a state senator, but he consistently denied that he had done any favours for Rezko.

The hope mantra

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times unearthed two letters Obama wrote to state officials in 1998 urging them to grant extra funds for Rezko's project. Democrats and Republicans alike in Chicago, too, are intrigued by the question of why Obama paid $1.65m for a mansion in the city's south side in 2005 - $300,000 less than the asking price - on the very same day Rezko's wife happened to buy the house next door for the asking price. In their tax return for the following year, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of a non-profit hospital organisation, reported taxable income of $983,826 for 2006, down from $1.6m the previous year.

"Hope" is the mantra word in Obama's magic elixir, but Bruce Reed - president of the Democratic Leadership Council - points out that tens of millions of Americans are supporting Obama not because of what he's done, but because of what they hope he might do. "We don't need leaders to tell us we can't do what we need to do," Obama said in a typical stump speech on 7 January. "We need them to say 'yes, we can', to say 'yes, we believe'."

Huge crowds roar their approval over lines like this, long on beautifully delivered rhetoric but short on facts and concrete undertakings. A casual observer might assume Obama is proposing a vastly more ambitious health-care plan than Clinton; in fact, the reverse is true.

Those who know Obama say privately that he has a healthy sense of entitlement that often manifests itself in an imperious, thin-skinned manner. We caught just a glimpse of this peevishness in his concession speech in New Hampshire, I thought - of a man somehow denied his rightful Schadenfreude over the second humiliating defeat of Clinton that he and the American punditocracy had confidently anticipated. Obama's latest book may be called The Audacity of Hope, but it really should be called The Audacity of Hype.

Next Article