Remnick Book Illuminates Obama Senate Strategy

Posted June 14, 2010 at 5:01pm

Anyone surprised by President Barack Obama’s recent threat to BP oil executives probably has not read Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick’s new biography, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”

Early in his Illinois Senate career, Obama nearly came to blows with a fellow state Senator who had openly questioned his honesty on the floor over a contentious vote. “You embarrassed me on the Senate floor and if you ever do it again I will kick your ass!” Obama told his fellow lawmaker, according to Remnick’s retelling.

The threat is not much different from Obama’s refrain last week that he wants to “know whose ass to kick” in response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker magazine, uses similar colorful anecdotes, exhaustive research and his own interviews, including one with Obama, to deliver a timely tome that now stands as the definitive biography of the pre-White House years of the nation’s first black president.

While receiving praise from historians for its comprehensiveness and strong writing, lawmakers and Congressional aides can also gain from it. The book’s insights into Obama as a political pragmatist rather than the idealist of his lofty rhetoric could prove useful for those negotiating legislation with the White House.

That pragmatism was evident early in Obama’s political career.

In 1995, Obama had his sights set on his first elected office, an Illinois state Senate seat.

However, his carefully crafted political plan seemed to fall apart when the incumbent, who had left to enter a Congressional primary, lost her race and asked Obama to step aside so she could keep her seat.

“They wanted to bully Barack but he wasn’t going to be punked like that,” Carol Anne Harwell, a Chicago community activist who managed Obama’s first campaign, told Remnick.

Instead, Remnick tells how Obama stayed in the race and employed a “long Chicago political tradition” of reviewing the incumbent’s signatures for getting on the ballot and used findings of fraud to knock her out of the race.

Like his initial attempt to pass health care legislation, Obama seemed willing to take the traditional route to win his first elected office. But when the incumbent blocked his best route to office, Obama employed hardball tactics to win — just as he was not afraid to use budget reconciliation to have Congress pass his health care reform plan.

In another example of his negotiating style, not long after entering the Illinois Senate, Obama became a lead sponsor of ethics legislation that aimed to end the common practice of mixing personal and campaign funds and ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.

Remnick says Obama was “mocked” by some in his own party for the reform attempt. But again, Obama’s pragmatic streak won out, and he helped secure passage of the bill after reaching a deal that exempted from the new rules campaign funds that had already been collected.

Remnick also cites a statistic that in the state Senate Obama voted “present” 129 times rather than “yes” or “no” on tough votes to show that he was already keenly attuned to his political future. Moreover, Remnick notes, some senior state Democratic lawmakers saw Obama as a rising star and often would seek him as a co-sponsor on bills that could help him if he ever ran for higher office.

Capitol Hill readers looking for fresh insight into Obama’s maneuverings in Washington won’t find much about his years in the Senate in “The Bridge.”

David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser and his longtime political confident, tells Remnick, “Barack hated being a senator.” A senior aide said that other lawmakers could also sense his boredom with the chamber, where he believed politics too often trumped policy.

Another aide noted that Obama’s Hart Senate office seem “unlived in” and “temporary” and that he was more engaged in writing his second book, “Audacity of Hope,” than legislating.

One of the author’s more interesting interviews is with Rep. Bobby Rush, the Illinois Democrat who easily beat back a primary challenge from Obama in 2000 and still harbors resentment toward him. In the interview, Rush calls Obama “calculating,” questions his activist credentials and wonders if Obama could have been a Black Panther like himself.

“If he’d been old enough, I could even see Barack being a Black Panther — especially the group that was really into the theoretical part,” Rush said. “That would have fed his intellect. He might even have carried a gun, I wouldn’t deny that!”