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Posted by on Jul 20, 2008 in Politics | 4 comments

On Barack Obama, ambition, & the greater good

I may be the last blogger to finish Ryan Lizza’s 15,000 word New Yorker article on Obama’s roots in Chicago politics. My chosen quote:

Many have said that part of the appeal of “Dreams” is its honesty, pointing out that it was written at a time when Obama had no idea that he would run for office. In fact, Obama had been talking about a political career for years, musing about becoming mayor or governor. According to a recent biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, he even told his future brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, that he might run for President one day. (Robinson teased him, saying, “Yeah, yeah, okay, come over and meet my Aunt Gracie—and don’t tell anybody that!”) Obama was writing “Dreams” at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995, when he saw his first chance of winning.

Many people who knew Obama then remember him for his cockiness. He had good reason to be self-assured. A number of his accomplishments had been accompanied by adoring press coverage. When he was named president of the Harvard Law Review, in 1990, he was profiled by, among others, the Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Vanity Fair, and the Associated Press. Even then, the essential elements of Obama-mania were present: the fascination with his early life, the adulatory quotes from friends who thought that he would be President one day, and Obama’s frank, though sometimes ostentatious, capacity for self-reflection. (“To some extent, I’m a symbolic stand-in for a lot of the changes that have been made,” he told the Boston Globe in 1990.)

Ezra Klein comments on Obama’s tremendous, almost preternatural self-confidence:

Remember the old line “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you?” Well, just because you’re arrogant, doesn’t mean you’re overestimating your abilities. Obama’s the sort of guy who can pack stadiums with 30,000 otherwise busy people who will sacrifice their day just to hear him speak. He’s the sort of guy who, all through his life, has left people shaking their heads and murmuring about the first black president. One response to this sort of adulation would be to shy away from it, take refuge in self-deprecation and faux-humility. Another would be to embrace it, to study the effect you had on others and try to understand how to best leverage it. Obama has taken the second path, which meant, on some level, internalizing a pretty rare level of public adulation. It’s left him unnaturally self-possessed and almost unsettlingly confident, but it’s not yet been proven wrong.

Yes, Obama’s got an astounding level of self-confidence. And I fully believe and expect he will succeed in becoming our next president. Still, here’s Ryan Lizza with Terry Gross on Fresh Air:

GROSS: You write that perhaps the greatest misconception about Obama is that he’s some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. You say every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. And it’s hard to tear down institutions. And it’s easier to–I mean, I think that’s true, and it’s probably easier to use them in what ways that you can. But I’m wondering, when you say that, from your research, whether you think he’s used those existing institutions to accomplish things that he thought as representing the greater good or just for self-advancement?

Mr. LIZZA: I think this is one of the most important questions about him. And, you know, there are certainly important achievements that Barack Obama has under his belt. But, at the same time, he’s a very ambitious guy and he has been, just about every three to four years, running for a new office since 1995, so a lot of his energy has been spent taking another step up the ladder. And I think one of the things I found from some of his critics–and some of them are his earliest supporters who, you know, feel a little left behind–and that’s one of the things that they’ll point out, is that perhaps he wasn’t around long in each of his positions to truly make his mark because he was already climbing the next rung of that ladder.

And, you know, I think that’s an important dynamic to watch, because if he wins this race, there’s no higher hill to climb. But if you think about the history, he ran for the state senate in ’95, didn’t enter the senate until January of ’97. By 1999 he was running for Congress. He loses that race in the spring of 2000. And by 2002 he’s already plotting his Senate campaign. He wins that in 2004, and by the end of–by the middle, at least–middle to the end of 2006, he’s plotting his presidential campaign. So I think it’s one of the big question marks about him.

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