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HBO’s New Obama Documentary Is Apolitical Propaganda

HBO has a new documentary about Barack Obama. It’s so devoid of politics that a viewer just learning about Obama would have no idea he escalated the war in Afghanistan and presided over eight years of rising economic inequality.

Barack Obama poses in the office of the Harvard Law Review on February, 5, 1990, after being named its president. (Lane Turner / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The moment that tells you everything about Peter Kunhardt’s three-part HBO documentary Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union comes midway through the second installment. Barack Obama has won the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Hillary Clinton has won the New Hampshire primary. As the race for the Democratic nomination heats up, we see two clips of Bill Clinton saying, apparently about Obama’s candidacy, “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale.”

Although powerful Democrats like then–majority leader Harry Reid had encouraged Obama to run, his victory in Iowa was shocking. Hillary Clinton was one of the biggest names in US politics, and she’d been laying the groundwork for her run for a very long time. She was elected to the Senate in 2000, when she was still First Lady. That year, reporters were already asking her whether she would run for president in 2004. She ruled it out, but in a way that left open the possibility that she would throw her hat in the ring in 2008.

During her second year in the Senate, Clinton voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. The same year, as an Illinois state senator, Obama spoke at an antiwar rally in Chicago. It was a pretty wishy-washy speech. He said the United Nations inspectors should be given time to do their job. He emphasized four different times that he wasn’t opposed to “all wars.” Nevertheless, he said that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and strong international support” would be a “dumb war.”

By the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton still hadn’t been able to bring herself to apologize for supporting the war. The other major Democratic candidate, John Edwards, had also voted for the invasion. That left a first-term senator few Americans had heard of before his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as the only viable contender perceived as “antiwar.”

When we see Bill Clinton make his “fairy tale” jeer, the implication is that Bill was denigrating the accomplishments of the first black man to come close to the presidency. A moment later, we hear a newscaster mentioning the Clinton camp’s defense: “Clinton says what he was describing as a ‘fairy tale’ was the media portrayal of Obama’s record on Iraq.”

That one sentence about Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment is the only time in the five hours and three parts of Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union that anyone says the word “Iraq.” That’s how little the documentary cares about politics.

The “Skinny Kid With a Funny Name”

Much of Part One is devoted to Obama’s early life and education — the time when he was a “skinny kid with a funny name,” as he put it in his 2004 convention speech.

Obama’s father is largely out of the picture. His mother remarries and takes him to Indonesia. After four years of immersion in the Southeast Asian country’s language and culture, his mother ferries him back to Hawaii, where he attends a mostly white prep school. As one of the only black students there, Obama is suddenly aware in a different way of his racial identity. He grapples with that identity, with his father absent, and continues to be raised by white family members. Later, when he goes to college, he gets involved in activist causes — notably, the struggle for divestment from apartheid South Africa.

All of this sounds like it should at least be an interesting and compelling story about Obama as a person. It probably would be if it weren’t being narrated from an emotional distance of ten thousand feet.

There are passing references early in the documentary to Obama’s early use of marijuana and cocaine, for example, but the subject takes up less than forty-five seconds. We certainly don’t hear about the group of friends who called themselves the Choom Gang, or one of the future president’s contributions to it — a rule called Total Absorption, whereby a member of the Gang who exhaled too soon was “assessed a penalty” and their turn was skipped next time the joint went around.

Personally, this kind of thing makes me find Obama more likeable. Even from a more buttoned-up perspective, it’s the kind of detail that would at least illustrate his early waywardness and make his evolution into the star student who seems to have sailed into the presidency of the Harvard Law Review more interesting.

Similarly, Kunhardt’s documentary only contains two mentions of Obama’s love life before Michelle. There’s a black friend at prep school that says he and Barack (then Barry) would speculate about which of the white girls would be willing to date them, and there’s an oddly abbreviated account of his relationship as an adult with Genevieve Ahearne, a graduate student in New York. Ahearne talks about how they hit it off, and when she returns a couple minutes later to describe Obama’s move to Chicago, she says, “There was no good end to this particular love story.” But we don’t get to hear why not. We don’t even hear about his unsuccessful marriage proposal to Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now an Oberlin College professor, never mind the self-effacing admission in Obama’s memoir that he read Marx and Marcuse in college as part of an attempt to pick up a “long-legged socialist.”

If Kunhardt’s were a straightforwardly political documentary, these omissions would make sense. A good documentarian might sprinkle in a quirky personal detail or two for the sake of flavor, but we wouldn’t really need to know anything about Barack Obama as a private person to follow the story of his rise to the presidency and the policies he pursued. The problem is that so much of Part One is spent on personal issues like how Obama felt about his absent father and his ambiguous ethnic background. Those only become interesting subjects when we have some sense of the specific human being having those experiences. Otherwise, it’s like hearing a coworker you don’t know very well tell you everything that happened to him over the weekend.

Obama the Politician

Obama turned to electoral politics because he’d been a college activist and, later, a community organizer in Chicago, but felt neither were effective ways to “make change.” So, at any rate, multiple people tell us at multiple points in the documentary. Yet we’re never told what specifically young Barack wanted to change.

We see him at a divestment protest as an undergraduate and at a protest related to legal scholar Derrick Bell’s clashes with the administration when Obama was a student at Harvard Law, but neither give us much of a window into what Obama cared about at the dawn of his political career. Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa by the time Barack Obama ran for office, and Derrick Bell had long since moved on to a position at New York University.

In 1996, Adolph Reed wrote about Obama’s first election for the Village Voice:

In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.

The relevant part of Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union doesn’t provide a more sympathetic alternate account of that state senate election because Kunhardt couldn’t care less about the political content of the race — or of Obama’s election to the US Senate in 2004, or even his later run for presidency. He’s interested in Obama’s challenges (and ultimate success) in convincing black voters that he felt at home in black American culture. He’s interested in the question of whether Obama was running for the Senate before it was his “turn.” We’re left to guess what Obama told those voters he could do for them or how it might have been different from what his opponents said.

This gets particularly strange when the 2008 election cycle comes around. Neither Iraq nor any other policy disagreement between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama gets a minute of narrative attention.

To be fair, aside from Clinton’s vote for the war, the two centrist candidates didn’t disagree on much. An in-depth exploration of the differences between their market-based health care reform plans wouldn’t have made for scintillating viewing. But the narrative stays just as blissfully free of politics when Obama faces off against John McCain in the general election. Sarah Palin’s attacks on Obama for “palling around with terrorists” and not “seeing America” the way she and her audience did get some air time as evidence that Obama’s opponents were using racial animus against him, but the viewer is left in the dark about what people fight about in elections where the Democrat and the Republican are both white.

When Obama is elected, we’re told that the backlash to his health care reform law was motivated purely by racism. Discontentment with “Obamacare” within the Democratic base isn’t mentioned — even though it was so widespread that, in the last year of Obama’s presidency, a self-described socialist won twenty-two primaries and caucuses in the most anti-socialist country in the developed world by promising to scrap the whole framework in favor of Medicare for All. Kunhardt isn’t interested in pursuing the usual talking point about the health care town halls that was advanced by liberals at the time — that it was all “astroturf,” and the movers behind the scenes were plutocrats who didn’t want even incremental health reform.

Kunhardt’s relentless emphasis is on what the documentary calls the “politics of race.” Even there, though, he’s only interested in an extremely limited conception of the problem. If a Harvard professor is arrested for trying to enter his own house and Obama finds himself entangled in the subsequent controversy, or if an Obama administration official is fired after Breitbart misleadingly edits a video of her comments about white people, we’ll get a detailed play-by-play. What we won’t hear is, say, the effect the Obama administration’s policies had on black foreclosure rates. The strong implication is that the solution to race-related maladies in US society is for role models like Barack Obama to inspire young black Americans to be confident about what they can individually achieve.

There are a few points scattered over the five hours of Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union where “poverty, racism, militarism, and materialism” are cited as problems requiring deeper solutions than those contemplated by a centrist Democrat like Obama. I think I even heard the word “capitalism” once. All these lines are spoken by the same person: Cornel West.

West’s presence was welcome but not entirely surprising. Few if any academic philosophers have as many film credits as West. He even appears in the Matrix sequels, playing a character named Councillor West.

Unlike Adolph Reed, who has often disagreed with West but who coauthored an article with him in 2019, West wasn’t initially inclined to see Obama as a representative of “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” The first time we see West in Kunhardt’s film, he’s praising Obama’s longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Later, West reports Obama telling him, “Professor West, I’m not as radical as you are, but I do see myself as directly connected to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”

West takes him at his word and supports the campaign. After Obama assumes office, though, West becomes increasingly disillusioned.

“I was hoping,” he tells us in Part Three, “that he would make poverty much more of a central issue even as he was trying to reconstruct the economy.” Noting that Obama “had a chance to render Wall Street elites accountable” and didn’t do it, he says, “that was the beginning of my deep suspicion that lo and behold he was leaning in a direction away from the direction of Martin Luther King Jr.”

This is putting it mildly. Martin Luther King Jr was a democratic socialist who led a Poor People’s Campaign and thought that racial and economic justice were inseparable. He made enemies of many white liberals who’d supported his earlier efforts to fight segregation by joining the movement to end the Vietnam War and calling the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Obama, on the other hand, presided over an economic recovery where 95 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent. He championed a series of corporate-friendly trade agreements, and his idea of a policy to help laid-off coal miners was to scatter some “technology training centers” around Appalachia — literally telling them to just learn to code. He voted for the 2008 bailout as a senator and continued the policy as president. His approach toward both the Wall Street criminals West wanted him to “render accountable” and the CIA torturers who’d spent the Bush years pulling fingernails off detainees was to “look forward, not backward.” He massively expanded the drone war over the skies of Pakistan, minimizing reports of civilian deaths by counting any “military-age male in a strike zone” as a combatant.

Absurdly, a line summarizing his accomplishments a few minutes before the end of the movie includes “ending wars in the Middle East.” This is one of only three mentions of those wars in five hours, along with the line about Bill Clinton and a passing reference to the fact that he “inherited two wars.” In reality, Obama initiated a brand new intervention in Libya and surged troop levels in Afghanistan to the point where American and allied casualties more than doubled from 2008 to 2009. In a discussion about drone strikes with his aides, the president reportedly reflected that one of the things he’d found out about himself since taking office was that he was “really good at killing people.”

West doesn’t get a chance to spell much of this out in the handful of minutes he’s on screen, but we at least get to see him say that “any president is under tremendous pressure from the strong — the corporate elite, Wall Street oligarchs, various powerful folk at the top” and that it would be depressingly unsurprising to see Obama “tilt” in this direction. In a documentary otherwise obsessed with the symbolic power of one man’s upward mobility, it’s a remarkable moment of clarity.

Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union fails on almost every level. Kunhardt was either too uninterested or too worried about disrespecting the former president to include embarrassing but humanizing details that might have helped Obama’s early story rise above the level of a superficial campaign bio. Too focused on how inspiring it was that Obama made it to the country’s highest office, Kunhardt fails to mention that once he got there, he presided over rising economic inequality and deepened some of the Bush administration’s worst policies. Kunhardt’s interest even in the “politics of race” is too focused on symbolism for the documentary to say anything real or interesting about racial injustice.

At the end of the day, I felt pretty much the same way about the documentary as I did about the Matrix sequels. They weren’t very good movies — but it was cool that Cornel West was in them.