Everything You Wanted to Know About Barack Obama

David Remnick's exhaustive -- and exhausting -- biography of the President is a textbook for the ages.

But the author dwells on race, however elegantly and in depth, because it is a question with which he is not familiar. This produces, at times, a distance that Obama’s many associates must fill, and paths of inquiry–such as a sustained look at the one-drop rule–not taken.

In fact, for all of the analyses presented in the book, on the subject of race and inheritance (the subtitle for Dreams From My Father), no one speaks as clearly as the president himself. Take Obama’s eyewitness assessment, in the Chicago Reader, of Louis Farakkhan’s 1995 Million Man March:

Just as holding hands and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage…. Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled… We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people’s benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between C.E.Os and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1.

It is easy to dismiss the 33-year-old’s insight as a type of please-all-people populism that avoids the controversy of Farrakhan himself. But Obama’s intuitive empathy for what he once called, in himself, “the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” presaged his shrewd and striking explanation of white grievance in his landmark oration on race in Philadelphia in March 2008.

It is also as accurate a template as we have for the operating principles of Obama’s first year as president. Since taking office, he has tackled the problems he outlined in 1995 with health care reform that benefits marginal workers, checks on executive compensation that aim to restore balance to the workforce, and a stimulus package that staunched the bleeding of the US economy and laid the seeds for better schools and jobs. While his administration has been critiqued, alternately, as socialist, overly cozy with Wall Street, radical and not radical enough, Obama’s basic, centrist political instincts actually deserve the term “post-racial.”

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