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The label gets thrown around so much that it tends to lose its meaning, but there are individuals who possess truly once-a-generation talents. Barack Obama is without question one of them.
A new documentary series—Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union, concluding tonight on HBO’s platforms—serves as a reminder of that indisputable fact. With the distance of some time—and the benefit of a contrast with his on-the-fly successor and his by-the-books replacement—what may have seemed routine to us during the Obama years was actually pretty extraordinary. Obama was, after all, a shrewd political animal. He professed a contempt for the game but played at a level we haven’t seen since—and may not again for some time. He also presided over some of the most consequential years in our political history and, perhaps, stirred a renewed public tolerance for ugly racial rhetoric among his detractors.
The documentary tells the story of the 44th President in three acts: childhood, campaign and presidency. As filmmaker Peter Kunhardt argues, race was—and is—a defining aspect of all three. In fact, the goal of the film throughout is to discredit the assertion that America is now a post-racial nation simply because it elected its first Black President.
Here, I defer to the experts. Civil rights legends like John Lewis, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson appear alongside academics like Cornel West, Eric Michael Dyson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the film to explain the historical and societal implications of Obama’s rise to power. Journalists Michele Norris, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb discuss the contemporaneous shifts in American political posturing. And Obama pals like Valerie Jarrett, Marty Nesbit and Elizabeth Alexander offer their own views of what was really happening inside their enigmatic friend’s thinking on race and politics.
Obama’s critics—and there are many—probably won’t devote the almost six hours required to watch this series. Thus, they won’t have to grapple with the thorny questions of just how much race was a factor in Obama’s presidency. But for those of us who covered it, the frame offered here is worth consideration as we start to tell future generations about that period and a man who, with seeming ease, changed American history.
Central to the story is a talented politician who understood the needs of an electorate better than most. It’s easy to forget or misremember just how much tension existed in 2007 and 2008 over whether Obama was sufficiently Black or if the country was ready for him. And yet Obama, according to interviews for the film, strategically embraced his identity as a biracial American whose trajectory was unique. As Sharpton recounts a conversation with Obama ahead of his breakout 2004 Democratic convention speech, Obama told the civil rights leader that the remarks were “probably going to be more expansive and unifying than a lot of people are used to.” Sharpton continues: “I stopped him and said, ‘Don’t worry, Senator. You do what you have to do tomorrow night, because you have to win for U.S. Senate. I’m gonna take care of the brothers and sisters tonight.’” That conversation, like many others with Black leaders, began a system where each had different roles to play in building a winning coalition.
The film captures an ambition that is apparent but seldom advertised. From his campus-reform efforts at Occidental to his headline-making tenure at Harvard Law, Obama understood how to command a stage. You can see this talent on display in his work in his adoptive hometown of Chicago, the memoir he published in his 30s, and that 2004 keynote, a master class in political rhetoric—all of which helped set the stage for his White House run.
But there are other, less favorable details about the man that emerge in this portrait, including a whiff of opportunism when it came to his choice of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church as a spiritual home. And there are less veiled flicks at sheer political ambition when it comes to his one losing campaign, a House race in 2000. Both Wright and Obama’s opponent in that House race, Rep. Bobby Rush, speak candidly about their perceived betrayal by someone they once considered a friend. In his first big interview since Obama in 2008 publicly disavowed his pastor and gave a legendary speech on race, Wright details how Obama went from church member to Wright denier. There is genuine hurt in Wright’s voice, especially when suggesting Obama didn’t disagree with Wright’s sermons but knew the politics were too toxic. And Rush, who beat back an Obama challenge by a 2-to-1 margin, can’t help but puff his chest a little when remembering how his former pal’s campaign called him out of touch with the district.
Still, Obama’s place in American politics is as one of its greatest practitioners, a fact that even his boldest critics cannot deny. He deftly swerved around his opposition and its racial undertones to guide a country through some gnarly moments of racial reckoning. He delivered a landmark health care law that has proven more durable than even its biggest boosters could have predicted. And as interview after interview in the film brings home, he redefined who could dream to grow up and become the President. It’s going to be a minute before anyone—regardless of race, gender or origin—can match the sheer political skills of Obama.
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