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The Mechanics
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Obama Thu Nov 11 2010

Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President

Edward McClelland's Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President is an engaging account for anyone interested in the dynamics of personality and politics. Tracing Obama's steps from his first sojourn in Chicago as a community organizer to his post-Harvard Hyde Park return en route to the presidency, McClelland breezily tells the story of a singularly focused and immensely ambitious individual often itching for his accomplishments to catch up with his intellect. While Young Mr. Obama does carry a psychological portrait of the 44th President through biography, its main theme however is how the historic forces behind the power structures of South Side Chicago -- replete with its black elite and Hyde Park goo-goos -- created the conditions that would allow for the ascendancy of an African-American to the highest office in the land.

McClelland's ending to the first chapter, "And if Harold Washington had never been mayor of Chicago, Barack Obama would not have become president of the United States" pretty much defines the series of events that would transpire in providing Obama with the platform to grow into a political personality. Moving backwards in time, McClelland does a great job illustrating how the gerrymandering of Chicago's First Congressional District and the emergence of early 20th century black leaders such as Oscar DePriest and William Dawson established strong foundations for black leadership to emerge in Chicago and across Illinois, well before it became accepted elsewhere. Coupled with the "if-it-plays-in-Peoria" demographics of Illinois, the stage was long being set within the state for the emergence of not a national black leader (of which the city has produced many, most prominent being Jesse Jackson), but a national leader who also happened to be black.

Obama stepped into that role as a highly decorated and driven academic. An eager organizer, McClelland focuses on the pragmatism that led Obama to recognize he could have more sway on the inside of the political spectrum (i.e., dishing out money) rather than petitioning for it (i.e., begging for money). It wasn't a completely easy ride for the aspiring Obama, most vividly seen in his loss to Bobby Rush for the US House in 2000. From that loss, the Obama story has already reached epic and enduring myth, but the problems currently besetting his presidency mirror his defeat in 2000.

Derided as professorial and detached throughout the campaign, much like many of his detractors state today, Obama used his loss as a way to regroup his public face into becoming a reflection of the room in which he was speaking. Always a great orator of substantive ideas, Obama had to learn to be a great communicator. As he rebounded to run and eventually win the US Senate Seat in 2004, Obama increasingly was able to adopt a chameleon-like pose that allowed his hopeful constituents to invest whatever their best hopes, or otherwise, were in him. In a sense, this has followed Obama into the White House, where belief -- and not necessarily communication -- remains his strongest suit.

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