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