Sasha Abramsky gets Inside Obama’s Brain

Sasha Abramsky tries to get inside the president's brain in this book.

Of all the many changes Barack Obama has brought to America, one of the greatest may be in the publishing industry.

An accomplished memoirist and speech maker, the president’s own books have become bestsellers.   The books he reads have been the subject of intense scrutiny and have seen bumps in their sales after Obama’s interest in them becomes known.

Then there are the books about him.

A veritable cottage industry of Obama books have sprung up since before his momentous electoral victory in November 2008.  I wrote recently about Jabari Asim’s What Obama Means, which looks at his impact on the culture and the sources for his inspiration and motivation.

Last night, I received a copy of Sasha Abramsky’s Inside Obama’s Brain, a book which, despite not being based on interviews with Obama, is an enjoyable read for Obama junkies. 

The very fact of the book’s publication is an impressive feat, even for someone as prolific as Abramsky.  I wrote earlier this year about Breadline USA, his journalistic and often quite personal look at hunger in the United States.

Inside Obama’s Brain is his second book to be published this year-a feat that he writes in his acknowledgments took strenuous and concerted effort and accompanying adjustment from his family.

The book is a highly positive, if not hagiographic, look at the personal elements and historical moment that have led to Obama’s extraordinary rise to become one of the most powerful people on earth.

Some books don’t fully articulate their argument until their final words.  David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Dr. King, Bearing the Cross, is one such book.  Inside Obama’s Brain is another.

At the end of this slender volume, Abramsky writes, “Ultimately, even before he had sworn the oath of office, Barack Obama, the man elected to serve as America’s fourty-fourth president, the man who had once cautioned against putting too much faith in charismatic leaders, had become something larger than an individual.  He had become, in short, a living legend.”

Abramsky is duly impressed by this legendary figure.

The book starts a bit slowly, but gains steam as it progresses.  Some of its material is familiar.  Abramsky quotes extensively and with insight from Obama’s two memoirs as well as pivotal speeches he gave like the one about race in Philadelphia.

Other nuggets come from interviewing a wide circle of people-former bosses, organizing mentors, people on Chicago’s South Side with whom he worked as a community organizer-and reporting what they have told him.

Some of the anecdotes Abramsky includes bolster his book’s chapters, which are “case studies” about different aspects of Obama’s character, and present new information about this intimately examined and comprehensively chronicled man.

Others are a bit less convincing. 

Obama’s ability to hit a series of shots in basketball when he is “on a roll” is presented as evidence of his focus-an assertion that many hoopsters would question as in any way unique to the president.  Similarly, his routine of doing three sets of bench presses and eating the same breakfast every day is used by Abramsky to show Obama’s discipline.  Again, I would say that one could find any number of people who engage in the same activities who do not merit the same label Abramsky affixes to Obama. 

Abramsky also writes about some of the intellectual influences on Obama-works like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was important to him, as I noted in a post about his Nobel Peace Prize address-and identifies his willingness not to be beholden to doctrinal solutions, but to questions assumptions in the forging of new solutions.  This relentlessly curious intellect is another key aspect of Obama’s personality.

In all, a clear picture of an enormously cerebral, confident, poised man grounded in history but not defined by rigid racial categories emerges. 

Abramsky does include some of the criticisms leveled against Obama by his many critics. But this is not a balanced assessment of an incoming global figure, but rather a work of affirmation and an attempt at explaining the factors that have led to our president’s meteoric rise from virtually obscurity even five years ago to his current Olympian position.


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