Using NBC Soap Box, Obama Biographer Blames President's Problems on Nation's 'Polarization'

Appearing on Monday's NBC Today, Obama biographer David Maraniss discussed how after the President was able to "resolve all of these contradictions" in his life, his biggest problem in the White House has been the country's failure to be as enlightened: "...why can't Congress, why can't the country? Why is there so much polarization?...he said there's no blue states or red states but the United States. Sort of an attempt on his part to transcend all of that."  

Substitute co-host and moderator of Meet the Press, David Gregory, began the interview by teeing up the author's sympathetic portrayal of Obama's life: "A lot of this book is about what Barack Obama as a young man had to resolve about his own life. A lot of dysfunction in his life." Maraniss proclaimed: "...he never knew his father. His mother loved him but wasn't around that often. Here he is growing up in Honolulu, further than any land mass in the world....half black, half white. Dysfunction in the family, alcoholism. All of these problems that he had to resolve."

Maraniss continued:

And from the time he [Obama] started college at Occidental, through the time he left Chicago as a community organizer to get to Harvard law school, 10 years of his life, I found he spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to resolve those contradictions, emotionally, spiritually, racially, and he really worked it out to a degree that helped him get to the White House. And then, in some ways, it hurt him as president of the United States.

After lamenting Obama's inability to "transcend" American political divisions, Maraniss concluded: "...the politics of this country are all very intense right now, and transactional politics is not his best forte."

Gregory followed up with a softball: "When it comes to ambition, where was – did the ambition to become the leader of the free world come from in a young Barack Obama?" Maraniss declared: "I think it came from his mother. I think that, you know, she didn't have the same type of ambition, but she inculcated in him this notion that he had to do good, he had to do great things with his life..."

When Gregory mentioned that Maraniss had confronted Obama on "inconsistencies" in his autobiography Dreams of My Father, Maraniss described the President's book as "literature" and explained: "...it wasn't that I was trying to fact check everything that he wrote in his biography, but I just wanted to get the story right....he didn't really fight with me about it....In most cases he said, 'You're probably right.'"

In his final question, Gregory wondered: "The President that he is, the leader that he is. How do we understand that based on where he's come from?" Maraniss argued:

I think everything about him is his desire to avoid traps. He had the trap of coming out of Hawaii, of being biracial, of being in Chicago politics. Every step along the way he's tried to figure out what the trap is and how he can get around it. Now he's in the biggest trap of his life, trying to get through reelection.

It's interesting to note that NBC has failed to bring on author Ed Klein, who's recent book critical of Obama has spent four weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.


Here is a full transcript of the June 18 interview:

8:50AM ET TEASE:

ANN CURRY: And coming up next, an interesting new look at President Obama's early years.

8:52AM ET SEGMENT:

DAVID GREGORY: Coming up on 8:52 now, with a new look at the early years of President Barack Obama. Author David Maraniss is out with a biography that sheds light on how the President's struggles with identity put him on a path to the White House. The book is called Barack Obama, The Story. David, good morning.

DAVID MARANISS: Good morning, David.

GREGORY: It was great to have you on Meet the Press yesterday and here we are once again.

MARANISS: Yes, yes.

GREGORY: A lot of this book is about what Barack Obama as a young man had to resolve about his own life. A lot of dysfunction in his life.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: "Barack Obama: The Story"; The Early Years of the Man Who Became President]

MARANISS: Very much so. You know, he never knew his father. His mother loved him but wasn't around that often. Here he is growing up in Honolulu, further than any land mass in the world. A "hapa," as they call it there, half black, half white. Dysfunction in the family, alcoholism. All of these problems that he had to resolve.

And from the time he started college at Occidental, through the time he left Chicago as a community organizer to get to Harvard law school, 10 years of his life, I found he spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to resolve those contradictions, emotionally, spiritually, racially, and he really worked it out to a degree that helped him get to the White House. And then, in some ways, it hurt him as president of the United States.

GREGORY: Well, talk about that piece, where it's hurt him.

MARANISS: Well, it's a sense that if he can resolve all of these contradictions, why can't Congress, why can't the country? Why is there so much polarization? He came in – he became famous because of his speech in 2004 at the Democratic convention, where he said there's no blue states or red states but the United States. Sort of an attempt on his part to transcend all of that. But of course the politics of this country are all very intense right now, and transactional politics is not his best forte. Bill Clinton was a much better survivor, dealing with Congress, dealing with people in ways that Barack Obama is not as comfortable with.

GREGORY: You write about the difference between the two presidents. When it comes to ambition, where was – did the ambition to become the leader of the free world come from in a young Barack Obama?

MARANISS: I think it came from his mother. I think that, you know, she didn't have the same type of ambition, but she inculcated in him this notion that he had to do good, he had to do great things with his life, she expected a lot from him. It was diffuse ambition at first. It wasn't until he got to Chicago and realized sort of the – what power meant and how to use – how he could use it, that he really started the ambition towards becoming president.

GREGORY: You actually spoke to the President for some period of time. And it's interesting, I mean here in this book you take on his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, and you point out inconsistencies, you talk with greater depth and detail about his pot smoking as a young person. You unearth letters from former, you know, loves, Genevieve Cook. How did he react to all of that?

MARANISS: Well, he's a writer himself. When I first interviewed him, he said, "David, your introduction," I let him read, "is interesting, but you called my book fiction." And I said, "No, Mr. President, I complimented it, I called it literature." There's a big difference between memoir and biography. And it wasn't that I was trying to fact check everything that he wrote in his biography, but I just wanted to get the story right. So he didn't – he didn't really fight with me about it, but it was an interesting conversation.

GREGORY: Was he forthcoming about these additional details?

MARANISS: In most cases he said, "You're probably right." You know, a lot of the mythology of the family was passed along to him that he didn't check. Like that his step-grandfather in Indonesia, he thought, died fighting the Dutch in a colonial, anti-colonial war. In fact, the man died of a heart attack falling off an ottoman changing the drapes in his living room. You know, that sort of story is something that – that the President did not check. And when I told him the reality of so many of those things, he said you're probably right.

GREGORY: Twenty seconds. The President that he is, the leader that he is. How do we understand that based on where he's come from?

MARANISS: I think everything about him is his desire to avoid traps. He had the trap of coming out of Hawaii, of being biracial, of being in Chicago politics. Every step along the way he's tried to figure out what the trap is and how he can get around it. Now he's in the biggest trap of his life, trying to get through reelection.

GREGORY: Right. Barack Obama, The Story, is the book.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC