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Thursday, December 1, 2011

INSIDE OBAMA'S BRAIN: Our Conversation With Sasha Abramsky

by Cyrus Webb

There are few journalist that I have gotten to know and respect the way I do Sasha Abramsky. He first came on my radar in December 2009 with the release of his book INSIDE OBAMA'S BRAIN, and I was instantly a fan. A self-professed political junkie myself, I have to admit that this was my first book to read about the 44th President. For many reasons, I'm glad that it was.  What Abramsky did was interview over 100 individiuals who had gotten to know the President and wrote a book about how his journey in life had helped shape the path that would take him into the White House. The result is a book that to me allows the reader to know President Obama in a more personal way, and then you can make your own assessment.

Abramsky, whose work has appeared in The New York Tims, Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post, agreed to talk with me for this issue on a host of issues including his thoughts on the current GOP field running for President. I think what you will find is a conversation that will keep you engaged and ready to share your own thoughts on the making of the United States' 44th President.

Sasha, I really appreciate your taking out the time to talk with us for this issue of the magazine. You were a writer long before you wrote the book INSIDE OBAMA'S BRAIN. Talk with us about when you first realized that you wanted to share stories and the experiences of individuals that you met?
When I was in college, at Balliol College, Oxford, I began writing for student publiciations: on politics, culture, and so on. Afterwards, I went to Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, in NYC, and from then on I've been writing, and telling the stories of the people I meet around America.

Has it been difficult for you to separate yourself from the people and places you are highlighting in your work? How do you stay objective?
Like any other journalist, I view my mandate as being to explain events/issues/social phenomena to my audience. If I make the facts fit a preconceived vision of the world, my readers will know it, because it will come off as fake. That's why, even when I write for avowedly partisan publications like the Nation, I aim to challenge my readers to think outside their particular boxes.

A case in point would be the story I did a few years back on gun control; my readers probably expected I would say all gun owners were nuts; instead, I did a piece on the history of guns and gun-culture in the American West, and made the pro-gun lobby there look 3-dimensional. I wouldn't say I'm always objective -- I don't claim to do straight news reporting. But I would say I always aim to tell the story as I see it, rather than to conform my writing to the expectations/stereotypes of either my editors or my readers.

I have to say that I felt your book about President Obama gave me one of the best insights into what made him the kind of man he is and why he governs the way that he does. What first led you to write this book and what has surprised you the most about the response to it?
I was asked to write the book shortly after the election, probably because I'd been doing a lot of political reportage/commentary for an array of different magazines and online journals in the US and the UK. I guess what surprised me about the response was the rapidity with which public opinion soured on Obama -- had the book come out in the immediate aftermath of the election I think it would have a) sold more copies, and b) gotten more favorable comments than it did when it came out a year into the Obama presidency.

In 2008, American readers couldn't get enough material about Obama. They wanted to know anything and everything about his life, his values, his politics. By 2010, much of that interest had faded. In a way, he'd been "normalized," and become a political punching bag rather than a cultural phenomenon.

It's obvious to me that you wrote the book with alot of respect for the former Senator. When you look at the three years since he took office what stands out the most to you about his Presidency so far?
I think he's done a lot of good things, and I think he thinks about politics in a very honest, and honorable way; but, I have to say, I've been disappointed by his inability to take on, and neutralize, the extremists within the GOP who are hijacking the national political debate, especially on economic matters. I fear a golden opportunity to redefine not just day to day politics, but the broader political culture of the country is being squandered.

Conversations Magazine recently asked individuals who voted for Obama if they now feel as though Clinton would have been a better choice. 90% of them said yes. Is that something you are hearing, and why do you think that some on the left have been expressing buyer's remorse?
Yes, I have been hearing that, but I have to say I think it's one of those rather incoherent questions: nobody knows what Hilary Clinton would have been like as a president, or what kind of intransigent opposition she would have run into. Obama looked extremely strong as a candidate, but has not been able to impose his agenda as a president. It's entirely posible Clinton would have suffered the same fate.

I think part of people are feeling is a frustration that Obama isn't Bill Clinton; and that's an entirely different question. Bill Clinton was rather adept at triangulating in a way that alienated the left but didn't entirely cave to the right. For the last few months, Obama's given up a vast swathe of political territory to the right in exchange for rather meager gains on his side. That said, he's shown himself to be a great counter-puncher over the past decade-plus of political involvement. I think it's far too early to count either the Obama presidency or the Obama agenda out.

One of the issues candidate Obama addressed while on the campaign trail was race. Do you think he has done enough to address the issue of race in this country?
It's a complex question. Many of the race questions are so overlayed with economics: disparities in wealth, access to education, access to housing etc. Clearly, those disparities remain, and by many measures have worsened during the past four years of economic crisis. I don't think any single person, or administration, can cure all of these ills at once. That said, I think Obama's presidency is proof-positive that we can, as a community, at least temporarily put aside racial divides... if that weren't the case, he wouldn't have won election in 2008. His presidency in many way moves the country forward on race; at the same time, it's engendered a vicious, and increasingly racial backlash.

One can't understand the birther's movement without understanding the racial subtext; and, in many ways, I fear that one can't understand the full venom of the GOP base's opposition to Obama without looking at the racial discomfort many white conservatives feel in having a black man as president. It will take many years, I believe, before we fully understand the legacies, in terms of race relations and many other issues, of the Obama presidency.

Do you think his policies have been designed in such a way as to acknowledge the needs of minorities who have been hard hit by the economy and joblessness?
To a point -- there's an understanding that one has to get inner city schools up to speed, that one has to work to solve the staggering levels of poverty/unemployment in minority communities; but I also think his team realizes that one can't, and shouldn't, craft economic policies intended to benefit only one part of the national community. I do think that Obama thinks holistically, understanding that ills in one part of the economy/society, will likely have impacts in other arena too. But this is an area of social policy that one has to traverse very carefully.

I want to switch gears a bit and talk about the Republican field as it stands right now. Who do you believe the White House is most worried about facing in 2012?
I don't know. But clearly some candidates are stronger than others. Perry might espouse what many view as extreme/irrational policies, but he's charismatic. Romney has access to a lot of money, and he'd likely get a lot of support from the business community.

I believe that everything will hinge next year on the perception of the economy and the jobless rate. Do you think the President will try and move forward on immigration legislation or any other big issue?
Yes, he's got a strong, finely tuned, sense of political timing. He knows when to hold his fire, and when to charge ahead. I think we'll see an interesting year of politicking ahead.

Having spent as much time as you have getting inside Obama's head and his thought-process do you think he would be satisfied being a one-term President if it meant being defeated on the things that mattered to him and his direction for the country?
I don't think any president would truly be satisfied with being a one term president, because defeat at that level implies a huge failing to connect with the national audience. We saw that with Carter and with Bush Sr. I would guess that in his heart of hearts Obama would be horrified by the prospect of losing in 2012.

Thank you for your useful insight, Sasha. It's always a pleasure speaking with you and sharing your thoughts. How can our readers stay in contact with you and find out more information about your books?
I episodically update my website: www.sashaabramsky.com, though less often than I should. As for my book, it's available in bookstores or online, at Amazon etc.

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