Edward Klein. The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House. Regnery, 2012.
Edward Klein argues in 2012 that Barack Obama is an amateur President.
Here are some observations and thoughts about this book:
A. Klein’s books have a reputation for being juicy and gossipy. I wanted to read this book because I heard that Klein described a scene in which President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disagree on Benghazi, with Hillary warning that Obama would not be able to make it look like anything less than a terrorist attack. That scene actually is not in this book, though it may be in another book that Klein wrote. In terms of how juicy and gossipy this book is, my answer is “not very.” There are a few interesting details: Bill Clinton in 2012 was encouraging Hillary to run against Obama in the Democratic primaries. Overall, though, the book contains the usual criticisms that people have made of Barack Obama, from across the political spectrum: that he is introverted, is not good at building and sustaining relationships and alliances with people, is a poor communicator (albeit a rousing orator), and (in contrast with John F. Kennedy) is unwilling to learn from others so he can improve his job performance. Add to that other criticisms: that there is little rhyme or reason to Obama’s inconsistent policies and stances, that Obama is more of a radical leftist than he lets on, and that Obama has a Messiah complex. You also have a behind-the-scenes look at how key figures are, according to anonymous sources: Michelle dislikes Oprah’s influence, the ups and downs in the Obama marriage, etc.
B. The book contains some contradictions, which may exist because reality itself is complicated. First, on the one hand, Klein depicts Obama as more of a radical leftist than he lets on. Klein contends that Obama’s stance as a unifier and transpartisan in 2008 was all for show, cooked up by David Axelrod. According to Klein, Obama’s relationship with his controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright was closer in his younger years than Obama implies. Obama also confided to his physician that he supports a single-payer health care system. On the other hand, Klein presents Obama as pursuing policies with little rhyme or reason. Obama decided to overthrow Qadaffi in Libya for no discernible reason, even as he withdraws America’s influence from the world. His immigration policy is a mixture of amnesty and ruthless deportation. And he has been all over the map on political and cultural issues. This differs from being a committed radical leftist ideologue. Second, on the one hand, Michelle Obama is skeptical about the usefulness of politics in improving people’s conditions. This goes back to her childhood, when her father was a politician in Chicago, yet the needs of the African-American community (i.e., having its snow plowed in the winter and its garbage picked up) were deliberately ignored by the political establishment. On the other hand, Klein seems to argue that Michelle’s portrayal of herself as skeptical about the political process is merely a ruse and that she actually exercises a lot of political influence over her husband. Third, and this is not a contradiction within Klein’s book, but it is a tension between what Klein says and what others have said, there is the issue of Obama’s popularity back when he was a student. Libertarian commentator Wayne Allyn Root speculated that Obama was not actually a student at Columbia because Root was a student at Columbia back when Obama supposedly was, and Root does not remember him. The standard response to that is that Obama was introverted and kept to himself, and that is why Root does not remember him. Maybe, but, according to Klein, Obama was quite charismatic and popular at Harvard Law School.
C. Klein has a chapter about Obama’s hostility towards Israel, and Klein mentions the anti-Semitism in some of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. That makes me think about the stance of the Alt-right and white nationalists towards Obama. I cannot generalize, since there are as many different opinions among white nationalists towards Obama as there are white nationalists. Still, I can share some of my impressions, based on my reading. On the one hand, white nationalists can find things that they like about Obama. White nationalists are anti-Israel, anti-political establishment, anti-illegal immigration, and anti-war (or non-interventionist). Obama did not let Israel get everything she wants, challenged the establishment in 2008, was pretty ruthless in deporting illegal immigrants who committed crimes, and was tepid about pursuing regime change in Syria. On the other hand, there are things that white nationalists obviously disliked. Obama criticized the police for controversial shootings rather than giving them the benefit of a doubt, was more interventionist in foreign wars and supportive of amnesty than white nationalists preferred, and enforced cultural liberalism (i.e., forcing Christians to accept homosexuality), which white nationalists consider to be an agenda of Jewish power.
D. Klein states that Obama’s economic agenda is for there to be a predominance of business monopolies and oligopolies, which would be unionized and provide benefits to their workers. Whether this is Obama’s agenda is difficult to say. Obama as President touted himself as an advocate of small business, and, while critics maintained that Obamacare kept small businesses from expanding, it did attempt (through exchanges) to provide health insurance to people who did not work for large corporations. The agenda itself is intriguing, though. If you cannot beat big capitalism, at least make it more humanitarian. And at least companies, not government, would be providing more of the benefits.
E. What do I make of Klein’s assessment of Barack Obama? Here, let’s address governance, then ideology. As far as governance goes, Obama was not that much worse than George W. Bush and Donald Trump. All of these Presidents have had to deal with gridlock and tried to work their way around it, bypassing the need to work with the other side. Obama may have had a Messiah complex when he first entered office, thinking his oratory and dynamic personality would make him different from other politicians, but there is nothing wrong with that kind of initial idealism: why would he run for office if he did not think there was something special about himself that could bring about significant change? I am sure that his Messiah complex was tempered over the eight years of his Presidency. As far as ideology goes, my opinion would actually improve of Barack Obama if he embraced Jeremiah Wright’s stance on 9/11. 9/11 was horrible, but Wright was right to say that America causes so much suffering and death around the world and is indignant when people bring that suffering and death to its own shores (blowback). At the same time, Klein does well to ask what the presupposition of American foreign policy will be if it is not a commitment to democracy and free markets around the world: what would fill that void? And would what fills that void be beneficial to people?
Klein’s book is also noteworthy because of the people Klein interviews, including Jeremiah Wright and journalists who once were enthusiastic about Obama yet had their expectations tempered in the course of his Presidency.