No longer a blank slate: Obama, 4 years later

By Jerry Schwartz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Obama, Kennedy says, is "temperamentally incapable" of taking that kind of stand. "It's just not in his bloodstream."

Not that everyone believes the Obama story.

This summer, if you drove along Interstate 78, near Fredericksburg, and you saw a billboard in the gentle, rolling hills of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It bore just five words: "Where's the real birth certificate?" ''Real" was in red, the rest in black.

The name "Barack Obama" was nowhere to be found, but there was no mistaking the message. More than a year after the White House released copies of the birth certificate on file in Hawaii, a conservative website still questioned whether the president is an American.

The "birthers" are easy to marginalize; a Gallup poll in 2011 found that only 13 percent of Americans believed Obama was probably or definitely born in another country. But how to account for a recent Pew Research Center poll that found that only 49 percent knew Obama is a Christian? Perhaps it's just that his name sounds unusual to many American ears.

The fact is, as certified by the state of Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was born on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. His birth certificate lists his mother's race as "Caucasian" and his father as "African." In June of the next year, his father — a brilliant economist from Kenya — would leave his young family to study at Harvard. He would never return.

His wandering mother took him to Java, the main island of Indonesia. His education there taught him not to show his emotions, author Scott says, and the story of his life with (and without) Ann Dunham explains a lot about her son.

Barack Obama would tell the story in his own memoir, "Dreams from My Father," and it would be retold — with additions and amendments — by others, including Scott, New Yorker editor David Remnick and Washington Post writer David Maraniss. The outlines basically remain the same:

—How he spent his youth alternately in the care of his grandparents in Hawaii and his mother, who moved to Indonesia and a short-lived marriage to a geologist there. In Indonesia he would eat dog and snake; in Hawaii he would sample marijuana, and sample it some more.

—How he went on to Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law, and along the way struggled to come to terms with his identity as a black man of mixed heritage in a white society. Genevieve Cook, a girlfriend of Obama's from New York, told Maraniss how "he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body." And that she would later realize that, "in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black."

—How he ended up in Chicago as a community organizer, working on the South Side. In doing so, he would credit his mother and her work in Indonesia as his inspiration.

Much has been made of the omissions and inaccuracies found by Obama's biographers in his memoir. For example, Obama did not identify Cook, and would acknowledge later that he conflated her with another girlfriend. Some of Obama's opponents saw these discrepancies as evidence of slickness, or even con-artistry.

In her research, Scott found that Ann Dunham did not lack health insurance when she was dying of cancer, as her son would claim in pressing for his health care overhaul. Instead, she lacked disability insurance that would have paid other expenses.

"I don't see these things as an indictable offense," Scott says, chalking it up to a "failure of memory."

It is instructive that Obama, now 51, brought his own personal narrative — his most powerful weapon — to the health care fight. It is the signal achievement of his first term, but it came at great cost: time and energy and political capital in the midst of a raging recession.

"The president is an intellectually ambitious man who is temperamentally cautious," says Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton.

For health care, he was all in.

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