Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Recent Books: The United States: Barack Obama: The Story/The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power/Obama and China's Rise: An Insider's Account of America's Asia Strategy/The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court/Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Recent Books: The United States: Barack Obama: The Story/The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power/Obama and China's Rise: An Insider's Account of America's Asia Strategy/The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court/Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream

Article excerpt

Barack Obama: The Story BY DAVID MARANISS. Simon and Schuster, 2012, 672 pp. $32.50 (paper, $18.00).

The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power BY JAMES MANN. Viking, 2012, 416 pp. $26.95 (paper, $17.00).

Obama and China's Rise: An Insider's Account of America's Asia Strategy BY JEFFREY A. BADER. Brookings Institution Press, 2012, 188 pp. $26.95.

The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court JEFFREY TOOBIN. Doubleday, 2012, 352 pp. $28.95.

Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream BY DINESH D'SOUZA. Regnery, 2012, 272 pp. $27.95.

Students of American politics in search of clues about what President Barack Obama's second term will look like can consult a growing body of literature about his personal and political path.

Nobody has ever called someone a serial fabricator more politely than Maraniss does in his sympathetic but clear-eyed and deeply researched book into Obama's early life. The accuracy of the president's two autobiographical books comes under heavy fire; the president's memory appears to be a creative and inventive force. But the "real" Obama whom Maraniss describes is ultimately a reassuring presence; Obama's political talent developed in unlikely ways as young "Barry" struggled to make sense of the multiracial, multicultural world into which he was born. Maraniss delves into the lives of Obama's ancestors in both Kenya and Kansas, and as a result, he deepens the reader's understanding not only of the president but also of the ways in which globalization is changing and challenging traditional cultures in Africa-and in the United States, too. At a time when hereditary elites and a political establishment appeared to have turned U.S. presidential politics into a dynastic rivalry, Obama's rise shook up the establishment and pushed the United States into a new era. Maraniss' book helps the reader understand that achievement and its importance.

If Obama's story reflects the dramatic ways in which the world has changed, it is reasonable to wonder how his presidency itself might contribute to those transformations through its approach to foreign policy. Mann's book, a portrait of Obama's foreign policy team, presents a group divided in two, with a group of older figures haunted by the Vietnam War and its effects on Democratic Party and national politics and a group of younger players (including the president) for whom the wars in Indochina are ancient history. Mann argues that even more than coping with the legacy of President George W. Bush and his "war on terror," the primary aim of the Obama administration is to erase the political advantage on national security issues that the Republican Party has enjoyed since the Reagan era. Mann's assessment of the administration's actual policies is balanced and nuanced, and readers looking for clues about the next four years will find much to consider in this brisk and well-crafted account.

Perhaps the most significant of those policies, at least so far, is Obama's "pivot" to Asia. Bader served as senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 until 2011 and has written the first insider's report on this important and underreported shift. His book suffers from the flaws that affect most such works by midcareer officials: it is discreet in all the wrong places, it settles bureaucratic scores in elliptical ways, and it tries slightly too hard to put the policies under question in the best possible light. But unlike many of these often-forgettable works, Bader's memoir offers genuine insights into some important decisions. The U.S. focus on the Middle East during the Bush years leftU.S. allies in Asia unsure about the Americans' willingness and ability to protect them. At the same time, a triumphalist Beijing jettisoned its "peaceful rise" approach, and China increasingly sought to pressure its neighbors into more accommodating postures. The Obama administration has taken on the delicate and difficult task of restoring balance to the region, attempting to check Chinese assertiveness without stumbling into an awkward containment policy against Beijing. …

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