American history, Barack Obama, biographies, book reviews, David Garrow, David Maraniss, David Mendell, David Remnick, Peter Baker, presidential biographies, US Presidents
Barack Obama undoubtedly possesses one of the most complicated – and fascinating – backgrounds of any former president of the United States.
Born to a father he hardly knew and to a mother he almost never saw, Obama’s path to the White House is one of the most remarkable and unlikely of any I’ve seen. And yet, in hindsight, his political ascent makes almost perfect sense.
Because his presidency ended so recently, and due to his young age, it could be three decades or more before the definitive biography of Obama is written. To wrap up this six-year journey through the best biographies of the presidents I read three books on Barack H. Obama:
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* “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010) by David Remnick
Remnick’s “The Bridge” was the perfect place for me to start: it covers Obama’s life up through his presidential inauguration and although the narrative can be dense and dry, it is not tediously detailed and provides an excellent review of most aspects of his first forty-seven years.
But this book is not as engrossing as are the very best biographies and it underplays the drama embedded in Obama’s unlikely and remarkable political ascent. But Remnick’s reporting eye and his tenacity in seeking out interviews of everyone who ever knew Obama are remarkable. And, of the three books I read, this provides the most informative “all around” coverage of Obama’s pre-presidency – 4¼ stars (Full review here)
* “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama” (2017) by David Garrow
This 1,078-page biography, covering Obama’s life up through his presidency, is noteworthy for its length as well as the deep research which supports an often extraordinary level of detail. Unfortunately, the degree of satisfaction a reader achieves by patiently navigating its ten chapters is inadequate compensation for the persistently tedious experience.
Garrow makes no discernible effort to separate mundane details from consequential facts and there are few, if any, overarching themes or theses. Individual moments of merit are numerous, but are overshadowed by long stretches which seem aimless or inconsequential. And in stark contrast to the first 1000+ pages of the book, Obama’s presidency is covered in less than thirty pages. As a reference on his pre-presidency this book is, in some ways, commendable. But as a presidential biography it proves a mind-numbing exercise in patience and pointless perseverance – 2 stars (Full review here)
* “Barack Obama: The Story” (2012) by David Maraniss
I had a great experience with Maraniss’s biography of the young Bill Clinton and this book on Barack Obama’s early life did not disappoint. Its focus, somewhat to my surprise, is as much on Obama’s forebears as Obama himself. It takes time to develop, and not until the book’s second half does the future president come into sharp focus. It also ends somewhat abruptly – just as Obama is leaving Chicago to attend Harvard Law and well before the start of his political career.
But it is extremely well-researched, quite well written and, in the end, paints a compelling portrait of the 44th president (as he approaches the end of his third decade of life). My fingers are crossed that Maraniss writes a follow-up volume focusing on Obama’s political ascent and presidency. (He has indicated an interest in doing so, but only after Obama’s book is published and once his library archives are accessible) — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Barack Obama: ***Too early to call***
– “Obama: The Call of History” (2017) by Peter Baker
– “Obama: From Promise to Power” (2007) by David Mendell
Congratulations! You made it 👍
Thanks – now if we could just get some decent DC-area weather over a weekend I need to get flying again 🙂
william knapp said:
Many thanks for the project, for your reviews. Best of luck.
I can’t believe that I just found this blog! I can’t wait to read through more of it. I’m a big American history nerd, so this was an awesome find. I just wish I could’ve followed along more. Although I’m looking forward to seeing your reviews of the ancillary character biographies.
Better late than never! And I’ve got a follow-up list of about 120 presidential biographies to get through, so even though I’ll be tossing some non-presidential biographies into the mix there will be plenty of POTUS-related follow-up!
Richard M Dasheiff said:
This is my personal review of “Obama: The Call of History” by Peter Baker (2017, 1st Ed.)
Peter Baker had established himself as an excellent writer of political history. His previous book “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House” is detailed, comprehensive, and goes into the key characters in depth. He puts situations in prospective and fleshes out the politics and motives.
Knowing that a full and excellent biography of Obama couldn’t exist yet because it can take decades to write such a book, I was prepared to read two books, the first being “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010) by David Remnick which gives Obama’s life up to the 2008 election, and this book which covers the 8 years in office.
The acknowledgments section clearly states that this coffee-table, overly illustrated, oversized tome (5 lbs by weight) was the creation of the New York Times as a show piece, and not the serious Obama biography that Baker might want to write. It is a disappointment for readers who want a good POTUS bio. That it might be the best available in 2020 doesn’t mitigate this assessment. Douglas Brinkley, one of the books paid reviewers, accurately characterizes it as a “remembrance of our forty-fourth president.”
As a Presidential biography I rate it 1-star.
“1” star doesn’t inspire me to tackle this one any time soon. I enjoyed Baker’s biography of James Baker (which I recently read) but I remember hearing similar feedback to yours on this “remembrance” of Obama and thinking I would pass for the time being…
Diana Batzel said:
I just wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge and book ratings with the greater general public. I belong to a small group of readers that are also making our way through the presidential list. Your site has become an indispensable resource for us and is always our first reference.
We have great discussions on many different topics but invariably come back to the discussion of what makes a great leader or president. Do you have thoughts (and time) to share a few of your ideas on this topic? I am also wondering if you might be able to recommend a few good books that compare presidents and their leadership traits? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book (“Leadership”) and Jon Meacham’s (“Soul of America”) are on our radar. Thanks again so very much.
I’m so glad to hear the site has been useful for stimulating discussion! You’ve probably noticed the large number of visitors who regularly comment and chip in thoughts & observations they have (which, in many cases, goes well beyond my own experience). For me, that’s the most useful feature of this website (which was originally designed just to give me somewhere to deposit my thoughts as I wound my way through the presidents).
But as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve not yet read any books explicitly designed to address leadership traits/skills. You note DKG’s book which is almost certainly a great starting point (I’m familiar with it but just haven’t read it cover-to-cover), but I don’t know where to send you next. The rifle-shot topic which has long been of great interest to me is the question of what makes a great president (and how would one really attempt to go about comparing presidents from different eras who each faced a variety of dissimilar challenges). I’ve deeply perused everything I can find on that topic but am still sorting through my own rubric / methodology. The ability to provide thoughtful leadership is probably one of the three or four key traits I believe go into making a president “successful” (whether or not “great”)…
It it would be fascinating to address your question head-on with a book or series of essays that examines each of the presidents’ leadership qualities irrespective of whether they are considered “great,” “near-great,” “average” or even worse. Among the most fascinating case studies to me would be Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR and Reagan.
Please let me know as your group winds its way through the leadership topic and I’ll try to let you know if my thinking develops further on the point..!