“Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.” Four years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama gave a speech in which he laid out his ideas of America, the promises and possibilities that had brought him to his “unlikely” state. As Frontline rehearses in tonight’s Dreams of Obama, these ideas are both familiar and thrilling. Obama’s soaring rhetoric, derided by his opponents during the long presidential campaign, is here again extolled, even as the documentary considers that extolling process.
Another reflection on the phenomenon of Obama, Dreams offers well-known accolades and occasionally bland over-explanation (Obama biographer David Mendell compares Obama to a great athlete, recalls that on that night in Boston, Obama told him, “I’m LeBron, baby,” then notes that LeBron is a star basketball player). As its biographical material on Obama is drawn largely from a previous Frontline (The Choice), remarks by interviewees here are not surprising so much as they are coalesced. Again, the Obama story includes basic points: he was born to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, he learned from an early age to negotiate “dual identities” and work between communities, and he spent childhood years in Hawaii and Indonesia.
At Harvard he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, an achievement that showcased his emerging political skills (Classmate Christine Spurell remembers that he was “able to communicate so well with [white students], even spend social time with them.” Offering her analysis of his ability and inclinations, she adds, “I don’t think he was agenda-driven. I think he genuinely thought, ‘Some of these guys are nice, all of them are smart, some of them are funny, all of them have something to say.’”)
In Chicago, Obama further honed these skills. As the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza puts it, “The sort of icon-like image that Obama has attained in this country sometimes blinds us to the fact that he wasn’t born on stage in 2004, but he had to rise through the ranks of machine politics in Chicago to get where he is. And that’s made him an incredibly effective politician.” According to Dreams, this effectiveness results from multiple forces, from Obama’s self-confidence to sustained mentoring by wise elders like Tom Daschle to smart, thoughtful planning of each campaign. His one loss, to Bubby Rush in 2000, raised what would become a recurring question concerning Obama’s roots and identity, that is, “Was he black enough?” Following this episode, the up-and-comer joined with David Axelrod, who observes, “He had a political story to tell,” one that worked across race lines.
The focus on Obama’s embodiment and representation of such transformational concepts is not news. Dreams spends little time on the recent presidential campaigns, both for the party’s nomination (that is, the battles with Hillary and Bill Clinton) and then for the office itself, running against John McCain. It does mention Jeremiah Wright, both as the pastor at Trinity and the “fiery” figure in those many YouTubed video clips. The New York Times’ Janny Scott notes that Obama’s success is premised on his not appearing as an “angry black man,” which meant he had to distance himself from Wright and other previous-generation black public figures, a feat accomplished in part by the Race Speech he gave at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. The Washington Post‘s Dan Balz explains (again), “The goal was to elevate out of that moment into something broader.”
The speech also demonstrated Obama’s “groundedness,” Balz continues, his tendency not to panic or act impulsively: “He is not a politician that is given to great highs and great lows.” This temperament served him especially well when the U.S. economic crisis emerged late in the campaign. Dreams shows the usual clips here, McCain suspending his campaign and Obama insisting the first presidential debate go forward. Viewing his behavior during these weeks, the documentary asserts, “Voters had come to believe that Obama was plausibly presidential.” This belief seems supported during Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park on 4 November. As Balz says, “You have to go back in history a long, long time with as much trouble to deal with as Barack Obama,” the president-elect appears composed and somber, waving to his audience and then accepting the responsibility that his popularity imposes and signifies.
The “dreams of Obama” are partly his and partly his admirers’, functions of his much-repeated story, his political ambitions and achievements, as well as the desires of his many and diverse supporters: “This is our moment, this is our time,” he says, reaction shots of the crowd showing them tearful and excited. While it’s not precisely hagiographic, Dreams of Obama is less interested in analyzing this historic campaign than recording its key moments. As future analyses consider how the campaign managed its moments—its expectations, images, and missteps—they might also consider how such moments were deemed key as they occurred.