With Making Obama, post-presidency Obama narratives move beyond nostalgia

Jenn White, left, sits down with former president Barack Obama. Photo credit: WBEZ.

Jenn White didn’t know if she would land an interview with former President Barack Obama. “We put the request in to his office pretty early on in the process, to let them know we were doing the project and let them know we wanted his voice to be part of the story we’re telling,” she says. “In these situations, you have a Plan A and a Plan Sad,” she says. “And so we were prepared to move forward with Plan Sad which did not include his voice.” Luckily, White and her producer Colin McNulty didn’t have to execute Plan Sad. In early November 2017, after months of back-and-forth with his office, the duo confirmed an interview with Obama.

The host of WBEZ Chicago’s Making podcast series, White experienced this kind of uncertainty before. It was early 2017, and the public radio veteran was working on the first of the Making “podumentaries,” the focus being another iconic Chicagoan: Oprah Winfrey. Eventually she nabbed an interview with the TV legend, just as she managed to do with Obama. Making Obama is far from the only post-presidency Obama narrative to pop up in recent months. But it escapes the nostalgia: It doesn’t present the “glossy meme version” of Obama, White jokes, but a more comprehensive picture of who he was and how he was made.

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Launched in early February, Making Obama is three episodes into its six-part series. So far, it’s documented his community organizing roots in the South Side and his first run for the public office, painting a portrait of the man that would eventually become a political powerhouse. The series unpacks the idiosyncrasies of the Chicago politics that shaped Obama, featuring the voices of the people that knew him best.

“A lot of the folks involved in his early political and community organizing days are still in Chicago, so we were able to connect with them pretty easily,” White says. Think: key advisers, friends, mentors, even former rivals. In total, White says they gathered almost 80 hours of tape from 50 interviews. “When we do these stories, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to end up with,” she adds. “But what we hope to reveal are the pieces of the person’s story that aren’t as familiar.”

In the first episode, White recounts the earliest days of Obama’s life in Chicago during the mid 80s, starting the episode at Lilydale First Baptist Church on the South Side. There, Reverend Alvin Love recalls his first encounter with the future president: He mistakenly thought the 23-year-old was a panhandler. Other community members and parishioners thought Obama wouldn’t last long in community organizing work. “They will chew him up and spit him out,” one tells White. But he pushed forward and slowly cultivated trust with the people in the neighborhood.

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Obama spent three years as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project before having an “aha!” moment. Well, it was a series of moments, or rather, setbacks and frustrations, like when a local agency said they couldn’t fund both asbestos and bathtub repairs in a public housing unit; they needed to choose. One of his early mentors, Gerald Kellman, summarized it this way: He went from wanting to effect change from the outside (community organizing) to the inside (public office). “A story like mine could have happened in another city, but my story could have only happened here,” the former president says toward the end of the first episode.

Making Obama is the latest in a number of longform looks at the 44th president. The documentary The Final Year shadows his administration’s foreign policy team, and the biography Rising Star, by David Garrow, details his early years in Chicago, much like Making Obama. While both David Remnick and David Maraniss beat him to it with their books, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama and Barack Obama: The Story, Garrow’s book details Obama’s complicated, often flawed, journey to Washington, not shying away from some of the more controversial moments in his life, including revelations from an ex-girlfriend.

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Together, these narratives fill the gaps in the story Obama himself pushed into the world, starting with his own pre-presidential memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. They present him as a flawed, complex character who was figuring things out. Making Obama and Rising Star aren’t quite nostalgia, as the rose-colored glasses are off. The creators, White and Garrow, aren’t yearning for his presidency, but presenting it as it was—allowing listeners and readers to draw their own conclusions.

Then there’s also David Letterman’s recent hour-long interview with the ex-president on his new Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. It’s like an MTV Unplugged version of his Late Night days. On the premiere episode, Letterman, sporting his now-legendary Gandalfian beard, sits on stage with Obama as the two talk through life after the presidency, social media’s impact on politics, and even moving his daughter, Malia, into her college dorm. The episode a de facto love letter to Obama, his administration, and his family, written by another beloved American figure whose been largely absent from the public eye since retiring from late night TV. Unlike Making Obama or Rising Star, My Next Guest is more explicitly nostalgic, and Letterman is full of awe. The conversation rehashes Obama’s recurring themes—namely hope, change, and unity—and reminds its viewers of what we lost last year.

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It’s the same kind of narrative pushed in the books, podcasts, you name it, from Obama alums, too, those “insiders” who worked on his campaigns and for his administration. The Pod Save America crew has its own burgeoning progressive media company, Crooked Media; ex-Obama staffers like David Litt, Alyssa Mastromonaco, and Pat Cunnane all published (or intend to publish) firsthand accounts of their time in the White House; and Pete Souza, Obama’s former Chief Official White House Photographer (and current Instagram celeb) published his best-selling photography book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, last year.

Obama largely avoided the national spotlight for most of 2017, choosing to spend his first year as a private citizen as, well, private. Now he’s inching back onto the global stage, whether he wants to or not, as popular culture relives his path to the presidency and also the legacy he left behind, at a time when the very office of the presidency is under threat.

“One of the reasons people are feeling nostalgic isn’t just about Obama, it’s about the presidency as they have known it in their lives,” says Laura Belmonte, a historian and professor at Oklahoma State University. “The continual chaos, the intentional attacking of enemies both real and imagined and provoked. It’s just exhausting for a lot people wherever they are on the political spectrum.” Never before has a president regularly chipped away at his predecessor’s legacy through both words and actions quite like Trump. “At this point, it’s really hard to point to any aspect of Obama legacy that hasn’t been completely undone or was damaged in some profound way,” Belmonte says. There’s nothing about him that’s comparable to Obama—not his interactions with his family, his business dealings, or even his use of Twitter. The stark contrast between Obama and his successor is unprecedented.

Making Obama balances the textbook nostalgia from Souza and other Obama alums. But together, they create a tribute to a bygone era—to Obama the person and president. “You tend to appreciate what you had after you lose it,” says Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. “And the extremely different style and character I think has made many people, even those who didn’t like him, to say at least he knew what he was doing.”

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.