Did Barack Obama ruin politics? Or did politics ruin Barack Obama? At this point, most Americans have made up their minds about the president one way or another. But even for people who think they know who the man in the Oval Office really is, it’s easy to forget who he once was.
Before running for political office, Barack Obama was a stubborn dreamer with a literary bent. Mostly he dreamed of living a better life story, even if that meant scrubbing away the blemishes of reality. Part of his appeal was the way he emerged from adversity unsullied. He was better than that. And with his help, we could be too.
That was Obama’s pitch to America. He would allow all of us to escape the mundane reality of politics, to live that better story with him, and erase the messiness of the past and present—just as he had done for himself. In Dreams from My Father, Obama’s 1995 book about his itinerant childhood and work as a community organizer in Chicago, the pre-presidential candidate recalls his grandfather’s habit of rewriting uncomfortable truths about his own history in order to produce a better future. Obama, who as a child lived with his grandparents for many years, admits to picking up the habit himself: “It was this desire of his to obliterate the past,” he writes, “this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony.”
Obama applied that very American tradition to politics. His campaigns would be about making the world a better place—more personable, less racially charged, more united in goals and respectful in temperament—more true, in other words, to the story we all wanted to believe about America. The ugliness of politics past would lose its grip on the reimagined future.