I sat a few feet from President Barack Obama for almost three hours just over a year ago. True, we never spoke. Or even shook hands. And sitting next to me was a Secret Service agent carrying a large gun concealed beneath his borrowed-for-the-occasion academic robes.

Welcome to graduation at the University of Notre Dame.

The intersection of religion and national politics is often fraught. When President George W. Bush spoke at Notre Dame’s commencement in May 2000, he annoyed some Catholics by invoking the late Dorothy Day. But Bush’s effort to enlist Day in the ranks of compassionate conservatives—we can be grateful that the often acerbic Day was not in the audience, because her reaction might have delayed her path to canonization—drew upon genuine strands in Catholic social thought, notably the instinct to address social problems through voluntary agencies, not simply the state. Bush and his advisers arrived at Catholic social thought less through experience than through texts. His speechwriter Michael Gerson once described the process as an evangelical search for a “compelling philosophy of public engagement.”

Obama’s exposure to Catholic social thought comes less from texts than from experience. More than any other American president—including the one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy—Obama encountered Catholic social thought as a lived tradition after he graduated from college. In this sense the president’s speech at Notre Dame, especially his remarks about abortion, might be read less as an isolated episode and more as part of an intermittent dialogue.

David Remnick’s The Bridge touches on this dialogue as well. The Bridge is the latest entry in an already crowded field, the Obama biography sweepstakes. Remnick is editor of the New Yorker, and this unfailingly lucid narrative has the welcome feel of an extended, leisurely magazine profile. It ends with Obama’s inauguration, after winding its way through his childhood, college experiences in California and New York, community-organizing work in Chicago, Harvard Law School, and his brief legislative career, first in the Illinois Senate and then the U.S. Senate.

Remnick’s metaphor of Obama as “bridge” between the 1960s civil-rights generation and contemporary activists is unoriginal, and surprisingly the book loses steam during the author’s formulaic account of the 2008 presidential campaign. Where Remnick excels is in the less familiar story of Obama’s background. He competes with Obama’s own Dreams from My Father, our most eloquent self-portrait of a president before ascending to office. But Remnick’s probing of gaps or exaggerations in that account and the information culled from an exhaustive set of interviews permit him to tell a more comprehensive story.

And an extraordinary one. Barack Obama Sr. was one of the small group of Kenyans whose educations were funded at universities outside of his country in the early 1960s as part of an effort to train future leaders in countries undergoing decolonization. (A major benefactor of this program was the Kennedy family foundation.) Anne Dunham, mother of the future president, grew up in Kansas, Washington State, and Hawaii, and met the senior Obama while he was studying at the University of Hawaii. She became pregnant at age eighteen; they married and then divorced three years later. After his father’s decision to pursue studies in Boston and then to return to Kenya, the young Obama met his father only once, at age ten.

In 1966, Dunham married an Indonesian college student. She moved with him and young Barack to Indonesia. There she began working on a doctorate in anthropology, becoming fluent in Indonesian and deeply immersed in the daily lives of her subjects, women craft workers. She became an early advocate of what is now called microfinance, and later worked full-time as a development officer for the Ford Foundation. Barack attended both a Muslim and a Catholic school. Dunham sent him back to Hawaii for middle school. There he lived with his grandparents and managed to obtain a scholarship to attend the island’s elite private high school, Punahoa. His mother’s absence (she was still in Indonesia) and his father’s almost total neglect (he had become a government official in Kenya) frustrated him, as did negotiating the relatively benign racial politics of Hawaii in the 1970s. He called himself Barry to avoid the unfamiliar, obscure ring of Barack.

Has any modern American political leader possessed such a cosmopolitan background? It’s not simply that Obama’s father was Kenyan and his mother Kansan. It’s that global currents so powerfully shaped Obama’s life from the beginning. In this sense his childhood could hardly be less like the upbringings of his predecessors, with backdrops of New England privilege (George H. W. Bush, John F. Kennedy), Texas privilege (George W. Bush), Southern farming and ranching (Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson), or small-town life (Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon).

Contrast these presidential childhoods—admittedly different, but still conventional American stories—with Obama’s. The sharp disjunctions Obama experienced in Indonesia and Hawaii—a black child living with two white grandparents, father unseen and mother beloved but often absent—support Remnick’s dominant theme: Obama as the master conciliator, able to reach his own conclusions while winning the respect of his opponents. He developed this skill belatedly, after an undistinguished high-school career and a so-so first two years of college. Then, largely through an act of will, he emerged as a magnetic leader, able to convince both conservative and liberal classmates at Harvard law school to elect him president of the law review, and to win praise from his students at the University of Chicago law school for his ability to explore all sides of an issue.

This comfort with multiple points of view helps explain his first and most important professional decision, to take a job as a community organizer in Chicago. Remnick mentions this in passing but it’s worth stressing the Catholic underpinnings of this position, with his first employer, the Developing Communities Project, anchored in a network of Catholic parishes on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Saul Alinsky, the inspiration for the Developing Communities Project and the most important community organizer of the twentieth century, had begun his career working in Chicago, and Alinsky’s most enduring community organizations also depended on Catholic organizational support.

Obama worked closely with some of the pastors of these parishes, using parish halls as meeting places and building links between white priests and activists from the overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods. Although it was lost in the tumult surrounding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame, he carefully referenced this community-organizing past in his commencement address, lauding Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whom he had heard address community organizers soon after moving to Chicago, as “congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground.”

But Obama was not Alinsky. Where Alinsky enjoyed provoking conflict as a means of mobilizing community support, Obama preferred listening patiently, using meeting after meeting, night after night, to become better acquainted with residents of his economically beleaguered neighborhoods, hoping, as he put it at the time, to facilitate “people taking hold of their lives.”

Obama’s achievements during his three years as a community organizer were modest. The economic challenges facing Chicago’s Southside, stemming from decades of racial segregation and, more recently, deindustrialization, limited the ambitions of even the most determined neighborhood groups. But he had made a new home—Chicago—and had determined that politics, electoral politics, would satisfy his larger ambitions. He also found faith, and Remnick effectively sketches Obama’s initially hesitant and then enthusiastic entrance into the world of African-American Christianity. When he returned to Chicago after law school, he met and married Michelle Robinson. He then found his way to the Illinois State Senate because of an unexpected vacancy. He lost one attempt to win a congressional seat. Then, in an extraordinary stroke of luck, his two most formidable opponents in the race for the U.S. Senate—one Democrat and the other Republican—dropped out because of sex scandals. As he glided to an easy victory, he attracted national attention for the large, enthusiastic crowds he drew in speaking tours of largely white, rural downstate Illinois.

Now President Obama is near the midpoint of his term. He faces a wobbly economy still struggling to emerge from the most severe recession since World War II, and must deal with the short- and long-term effects of the BP gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. He oversees the withdrawal from Iraq (while grudgingly crediting the Bush administration for the surge that makes withdrawal feasible) even as he juggles crises in Iran, North Korea, and, most treacherously, Afghanistan.

His legislative achievements—the health-care bill, financial regulation, the stimulus package—are remarkable, certainly the most far-reaching accomplishments for a first-term president since Lyndon Johnson. His handling of cultural issues has been more cautious. Sympathetic to gay rights, he remains uninterested in advocating gay marriage and keeps his distance from the step-by-step review of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Contrary to the denunciations made by some Catholics at the time of the 2008 election and then the Notre Dame commencement—Rockford’s bishop Thomas Doran helpfully suggested that the university change its name to Northwest Indiana Humanist University—Obama’s stance on abortion has been clearly prochoice but more measured than many Democratic activists hoped, with respectful support for conscience clauses (noticeably in the Notre Dame speech) and invocations to find common ground. Even his solicitous approach to prolife Democrats during the health-care debate—which drew the fury of Planned Parenthood and other prochoice groups—lured more Catholic support, including from the leaders of the Catholic Health Association, than anyone could have imagined two years ago. 

These cultural issues may fade in importance. (And in fact Obama’s Notre Dame speech doesn’t even make the index of Jonathan Alter’s just-published history of the first year of the Obama presidency.) The tide is moving in the direction of state-by-state recognition of gay marriage or civil unions. The same tide is pulling the country in a more prolife direction than anyone anticipated a decade ago, with polls finding young people more prolife than their parents. But absent a lightning bolt from the Supreme Court, change in both areas will be incremental, a patchwork of laws and court rulings in conjunction with modest shifts in public opinion.

No such patience is possible on questions of political economy. The leaders of the industrial democracies, from Obama to Germany’s Angela Merkel to Brazil’s Lula da Silva, are understandably wary of the unprecedented volatility of global capitalism. They know, too, that economic policy builds upon the equally explosive topic of immigration policy, an intertwined movement of people and goods. And they realize, finally, that any new regulatory scheme  must not squelch the economic growth that over the past thirty years has lifted more people around the globe out of poverty than ever before in human history.

But what then? The Obama administration’s decision to expand the scope of government is risky in a political culture where not just Tea Partiers but crucial independent voters mistrust the federal government. (The presumably serious, focus-group-tested title of Newt Gingrich’s new book captures the mood: To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.) The triumph in the past thirty years of market-oriented, individualist thinking on an abortion struggle framed around competing notions of rights, a volunteer military invisible to middle- and upper-class families, and an economic environment tilted far more toward growth than equality makes it excruciatingly difficult to claw back a more Catholic vocabulary of solidarity. Even a few of the bishops weighing in on the health-care debate moved with disconcerting speed past decades of episcopal statements in favor of health-care reform toward visceral fear of “excessive government centralization.”

This libertarian ethos is less visible in Europe, and even less so in Vatican City. Benedict XVI’s attempt to foster global solidarity in Caritas in veritate (2009) has drawn respectful praise, if not much traction. Even if its foreboding length did not deter readers, the latest wave of the sexual-abuse crisis has again swept everything before it. As the immigration issue takes center stage in American political life, though, the president and pope may again find their paths intertwined, marking yet another chapter in Obama’s intermittent but complex engagement with Catholicism.


Related: Nick Baumann reviews Jonathan Alter's The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: View Contents

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame.

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