The Bridge: the Life and Rise of Barack Obama

In an insightful biography, the New Yorker editor captures Barack Obama’s shape-shifting skills, but

In the usual retelling of the showdown between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, the crucial chapter on South Carolina is dominated by the antics of Hillary's husband, Bill, who, alarmed by the success of the young upstart, began veering off-message in ways that were distinctly unhelpful to his wife's cause. Yet, lost in this version of history is the equally remarkable transformation by Obama, the bi­racial rookie senator who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by his white mother and grandparents, who attended four elite educational institutions, and who charmed the white voters of Iowa and New Hampshire with his cerebral equanimity - only to unpack a quite different act in South Carolina.

In one struggling textile town after another, I and my colleagues on the press bus watched as Obama delighted nearly all-black crowds with a call-and-response repartee that shared more with the African-American church than with the sober "town halls" he'd been holding elsewhere. In the town of Dillon, he smiled when an audience member cried out, "That ain't right," in response to a disingenuous claim he said Hillary had made, and then he ran with it. "That is not just 'isn't right'. That 'ain't right'," he said with a grin. "There are some things that 'isn't right' but then there are some that 'ain't right'." The crowd roared. In Kingstree, he urged high voter turnout by saying, "I not only need you to vote, I need Cousin Pookie to vote. I need Ray-Ray. We need to get some folks to show up that haven't been voting."

Behind the banter was a dead earnest political reality: the Clintons had a strong bond with black voters and many were not yet ready to give that up for a newcomer who had a background so unlike the typical African-American one and who had, since his entry into Chicago politics a decade earlier, faced questions about whether he was "black enough". But Obama's path to victory over Clinton depended on wresting the black vote away from her, which, combined with his support among college-educated white liberals, would outweigh her base of white, working-class Democrats. South Carolina was where the decisive shift occurred.

First, his campaign built a far more effective grass-roots effort than her top-down, buy-off-the-ministers approach. Then came Obama's win in the Iowa caucuses, which proved to sceptical black voters that he could win white support. Obama's roadshow closed the deal and, on primary day, he won 81 per cent of the black vote to Hillary's 17. That part of the electorate was his for good.

It is this transformation - a smooth movement between very different worlds and personas - that is the focus of David Remnick's hefty but readable account of Obama's freakishly rapid ascent. Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, places Obama's story squarely in the framework of America's civil rights struggle. He opens the book with Obama and Hillary Clinton's highly charged appearance, in March 2007, at an event to commemorate the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" attack by Alabama state troopers on peaceful protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Remnick sets up the memorial event as Obama's opening bid for the hopes and allegiance of black America. Obama, he posits, represents the far end of the "bridge" that had been extended by civil rights giants such as Martin Luther King and John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who suffered a fractured skull on Bloody Sunday.

This framing is one that Obama coyly encouraged in his finely calibrated attempt to take on the sheen of history without being the "black candidate" - he echoed King often, yet even in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2008, which happened to fall on the 45th anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech, he evoked King without mentioning him by name. By Remnick's telling, Obama's rise is the tale of a young man's attempt to attach himself to black American culture, having been raised outside it, even as he advanced through the country's elite institutions. It is a path that required extreme agility - something more than the chameleon-like expedience that Obama's detractors (including many in the Clinton inner circle) saw in him. "Obama could change styles without relinquishing his genuineness," Remnick writes.

He subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience: a more straight-up delivery for a luncheon of business people in the Loop [in downtown Chicago]; a folksier approach at a downstate VFW [veterans' club]; echoes of the pastors of the black church when he is in one. Obama is multilingual, a shape-shifter . . . Like the child of immigrants who can speak one language at home, another at school, and another with his friends - and still be himself - Obama crafted his speech to fit the moment. It was a skill that had taken years to develop.

Remnick makes it his task to chart this development. A supervisor at one of Ralph Nader's non-profit organisations, where Obama had a short-lived job, noticed that "he had the gift of being able to talk with everyone: students on the left, in the centre, faculty, everyone". Jerry Kellman, who hired Obama for his pivotal three-year stint as a community organiser in Chicago, recalls how well he took to the city's socially complex South Side: "Give Barack diversity and he is king of the room." Remnick quotes Obama himself on this tendency in a profile from 2006:

The fact that I conjugate my verbs in a typical Midwestern newscaster voice - there's no doubt that this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences. And there's no doubt that when I'm with a black audience I slip into a slightly different dialect. But the point is, I don't feel the need to talk in a certain way before a white audience. And I don't feel the need to speak in a certain way in front of a black audience. There's a level of self-consciousness about these issues the previous generation had to negotiate that I don't feel I have to.

As much as Remnick wants us to focus on this adaptability, his account may be more useful for explaining what has been one of the mysteries of Obama's biography: his emergence, in his mid-twenties, as an earnest and ambitious young man whose temperament and political philosophy would, for all his shape-shifting, be strikingly consistent during the career that followed. This was one of several gaps in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, in which the narrative jumps, in the space of barely half a dozen years, from Obama the amiable but unfocused late adolescent with a mild drug habit to the politically awakened ascetic who arrives at Harvard Law School with, everyone seemed to agree, "first black president" written all over him.

Obama may have wanted to play down his years at elite colleges so as not to spoil his tale of Kenya and the South Side of Chicago. Or else he may have feared that a proper reckoning with the flowering of his ambition might have come off as too immodest. But Remnick's well-researched timeline fills out the Bildungsroman. We see the Obama at Occidental College in LA deciding to drop "Barry" for "Barack". We see him befriending a couple of upper-crust Pakistani students with socialist beliefs - figures he skirts past in Dreams. We see him developing a sense of political proportion, speaking at an apartheid protest but judging other campus spats too trivial: "The impression he gave me was 'I get involved when it is important enough'," recalls one fellow student. His decision to transfer to Columbia, another says, is a key step: "California feels too pat, he is too dissipated, he is getting away with too much, hanging out too much, so he says to himself, 'Go put yourself in a very cold place.' He picks Harlem." Obama confirms this to Remnick:

I think I had a hunger to shape the world in some way, to make the world a better place, that was triggered around the time I transferred from Occidental to Columbia . . . And so there's this period of time when I move to New York and go to Columbia, where I pull in and wrestle with that stuff, and do a lot of writing and a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and a lot of walking through Central Park . . . So I would say that's a moment in which I gain a seriousness of purpose that I had lacked before.

Remnick introduces us to Obama's eclectic cast of influences, not least his mother, the anthropologist who left him in Hawaii to do her research in Indonesia, but passed on to her son a knack for social observation. Then there is Frank Davis, a loquacious black labour activist transplanted to Honolulu, who offered the teenaged Obama an early link with the mainland African-American experience, as well as with leftist politics; and Roberto Unger, a Harvard law professor known for his pungent attacks on the US legal system. Obama took two of the professor's courses, and although he emerged from Harvard with the cautious and conciliatory politics that would become his trademark, Remnick hears echoes of Unger in Obama's later admission that he had found the study of law "a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power".

Even as he fills in the gaps in Dreams, Remnick must contend with the challenge of incorporating his subject's bestselling autobiography into his own biography. He opts to quote from Dreams throughout and convincingly traces its structure to American slave narratives, chiding Obama for trying to make his own experience sound deprived enough to fit the template. Yet he somewhat skates over the question of what Obama intended with his unusually ambitious and intimate memoir. For all his thoughts of public service, Remnick writes, Obama "could not have envisioned that Dreams From My Father, just 13 years later, would provide a trove of material for voters, journalists, speechwriters and media consultants during a presidential campaign". But the thirtysomething Obama that Remnick portrays is so ambitious and sure of his destiny that it seems possible he was entirely aware of the likely impact his book would have. And it is precisely Obama's confidence in his own candour that sets this book apart.

Remnick continues to offer fresh insights throughout the period of Obama's entry into Illinois state politics, and is particularly good on the difficulty he had in establishing street cred among his black political rivals. Bobby Rush, the former black nationalist who easily fended off Obama's attempt to grab his congressional seat in 2000, mocked his challenger in tones that foreshadowed Sarah Palin's attacks. Obama "went to Harvard and became an educated fool", Rush sneered. "We're not impressed with these folks with these eastern elite degrees." Remnick conveys the sense of frustration that settled over Obama as a state legislator and later in the US Senate. "Barack hated being a senator," his political guru, David Axelrod, tells the author.

But the account loses steam when it reaches the oft-told story of the 2008 presidential campaign. Remnick's insistence on viewing it through his race-focused lens has a distorting effect. He is more concerned with Obama's relationships with black leaders and voters than with white ones, when it was his successes with the latter that were much more decisive. In his account of the South Carolina surge, for example, Remnick underplays the importance of the preceding victory in Iowa, which changed the perception of Obama among black voters overnight. And spending no time in Iowa also means short-changing the message that Obama had been cultivating for years and that resonated with voters as much as his implicit promise of racial conciliation - his call for a "new politics" freed of cynicism and gamesmanship.

Finally, in under-examining Obama's cross-racial appeal, Remnick also overstates it. As he trumpets the scale of Obama's victory over John McCain, he fails to take note of the swath of America in which McCain surpassed George W Bush's performance in 2004 - an arc curving from south-western Pennsylvania, through Appalachia and the Upper South, all the way into east Texas.

Not that Remnick suggests the 2008 election settled America's civil rights challenges once and for all. But the vast stretch of territory won by McCain held an ominous hint of what awaited Obama in office - strains and tensions that have so far proved resistant to the adaptability and multilingualism of a singular politician depicted so well in this valuable book.

The Bridge: the Life and Rise of Barack Obama
David Remnick
Picador, 672pp, £20

Alec MacGillis is a correspondent for the Washington Post and a regular contributor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope