Meet the Real Barack Obama

Sasha Abramsky discusses Inside Obama's Brain.

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With almost daily television appearances and endless analysis of his every move, Americans—and those around the world­—think they know Barack Obama well. Yet according to Sasha Abramsky's latest book, Inside Obama's Brain, the president is too complex to be pigeonholed. Based on interviews with people who have known Obama throughout his career—friends, neighbors, colleagues—Abramsky paints a private portrait of the public icon, one that highlights just how multifaceted the man can be. Abramsky, a freelance journalist, is the author of four other books, including Breadline USA, about malnutrition in the United States, and is a senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based public policy think tank. He recently chatted with U.S. News about Obama, the pragmatic idealist, and his rope-a-dope approach to change. Excerpts:

What will readers discover in your book?

They'll discover that Obama is an extremely complex, multilayered personality. They'll discover that this is a man who is a very, very gifted writer. He's a very intelligent thinker. He has a very big-picture understanding of politics and policy and the ways in which they play out not just on the domestic stage but on the historical stage. When Obama approaches problems, usually he's thinking historically in a way that some presidents in the past have done, but not terribly many. They'll also discover that he's a very, very self-confident person.

What will surprise people most about the president?

There's an image of Obama as a pure idealist that was fairly carefully crafted in the election campaign, and it gelled very nicely with the rhetoric of change and hope and so on. Yes, he's an idealist, but he's also intensely pragmatic. And it's that fusion of pragmatism and idealism that makes him an effective politician. Idealism without pragmatism could degenerate into just a series of high-flown, oratorical feats. But it's Obama's ability to then knuckle down and do the hard work and actually push for specific policy reforms. There was a lot of mettle underneath the idealism.

Is your book just another Obama biography?

It's not a conventional biography. I didn't talk to Barack Obama himself. But I did talk to anybody and everybody I could who knew Obama. I was looking for people who knew him in a very private setting. People who had known him at school, at university, people who had known him as a community organizer, as a writer, as a lawyer. And so, I basically built up many layers of this man's personality through the write-around technique, through interviewing as many people as I could about as many different aspects of his life or aspects of his personality as I could.

Was anything missing from not talking to him?

In the end, I don't think anything was. Partly because I got such good access to so many people who knew him very, very closely and partly because Obama has written and talked so much about not just his life but his views on so many different issues over the years.

Has Obama as president behaved in a way you would expect from your book?

Yeah. What I found is that this is a man who knows how and when to compromise. In some ways, he's quite like Muhammad Ali. He lets himself lean backwards. He lets himself look like he's going onto the ropes, and then, very effortlessly, he counterattacks. And I think it's not an accident that Muhammad Ali is actually one of his heroes. When you go into Obama's office, in many of his workplace environments over the years, he's had a picture of Muhammad Ali on his wall. One of the things that surprised some of his core group of supporters, his base of supporters, especially in the left-wing blogosphere, has been the fact that it's not very easy to pigeonhole him. He's very radical in his aspirations, but he's very pragmatic in terms of his approach to how do I get where I want to get.

How are we seeing Obama the community organizer now?

He's extremely good at bringing disempowered people into a conversation and making them feel that their voices matter and that if they get involved in the process, then they can change the process. What we're seeing in the White House is that there are limits to the ways in which you can use community organizing skills in government. He's done a fairly good job of making government more open and more transparent. He's done a fairly good job of taking advice from many different corners—all of which are skills he picked up as a community organizer. And yet, at the end of the day, he's in charge of the most complex governing apparatus on Earth. And he's going to be making decisions, some of which are very hard to understand on the ground, based on information that isn't available to the public. That is a transition that we're seeing, this gradual move from the campaign Obama to the leadership Obama, and I think it's two slightly different sides of his personality in play.