David Maraniss is an Associate Editor with The Washington Post. He received a Pulitzer Prize for covering Bill Clinton’s campaign during the 1992 Presidential Election, and has written several bestselling books, including Barack Obama: The Story. Mr. Maraniss has been with The Post since 1997.
Harvard Political Review: What are the things that we miss or misunderstand about President Obama as a person?
David Maraniss: I think the most important thing to understand about President Obama is that he works in a somewhat different rhythm than the modern American mentality. Oftentimes, you see people that support him that are perhaps a bit left of him being frustrated by what they see as an unwillingness to confront the opposition and fight certain battles in the way they want him to. But he’s doing it in his own way and he gets as much done. That’s what I call his thinking two or three steps ahead about where the traps are and how to get around them. He doesn’t always succeed, but he’s always thinking about how to get where he wants to go.
HPR: You said Barack Obama’s on a different pace than the rest of the country, and I assume that includes the media and Washington political class. Many people say that he needs to adjust in his second term to get things done. Does this include changing his pace and the way he thinks?
DM: I think he will adjust in that sense as well. But I also think that the media is adjusting to him. He came into the presidency with not a whole lot of administrative experience. This has been a learning experience for him, and he’s learned where to make adjustments in his rhythms and personality to accomplish what he wants to.
HPR: Do you think that relationship is going to stay as strong in the future? Obama has been described as the Pacific President, considering China the priority for U.S. foreign policy, and the EU is becoming more important for the U.K.
DM: I think it’s more a matter of perception than reality. And the interesting thing is that if you go back and watch his 2008 campaign and listen to his first inaugural address, it’s a fairly bleak address. He’s talking about how there’s so much difficult work ahead. It wasn’t about hope and change; it was about the hard work that he knew was coming.
HPR: You actually wrote a book about Clinton as well. You’ve now written about Clinton, Obama, and Al Gore, but you’ve skipped President Bush. Why did you make that choice? Does that reflect anything about your political affiliation?
DM: It doesn’t reflect anything about my political affiliation. I have to be obsessed with something before I write about it. That doesn’t mean that there certainly couldn’t be a conservative or Republican that I would be obsessed about, but George Bush didn’t quite do that for me.
And, neither did Al Gore by the way. For Al Gore, I wrote a series for The Washington Post, and they turned it into a book. But for Clinton and Obama, I spent three years writing on each one, and I did write a book on Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution.
HPR: While you’re doing these biographies of living subjects, you trace them back generations. Why do you think this tracing back is important, and what does that reveal?
DM: Well, I did it with Obama. I did it only a little bit with Clinton, and the book starts the day he shook John F. Kennedy’s hand. With Obama, I did it for a completely different reason. What an author has to do is write the book they want to write, and I wanted to explore that incredible confluence that made Obama possible and use that to write about the modern world. To the degree that it explains Obama, that’s great. But, that wasn’t the only motivation; I was interested in it. I think you can see it through the story of both his white ancestry and the brilliance and frustration that came out of his Kenyan ancestry. There are a lot of the threads that weave into President Obama’s life.