Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. By Ian Reifowitz. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012. 251 pp.
Ian Reifowitz's Obama's America is a thorough and carefully expounded study of President Barack Obama, inclusiveness, and national identity. The author effectively portrays the long-standing tension between liberals' embrace of multiculturalism and conservatives' defense of a unified nationalism. Decades of thinking and debate have gone into reconciling a nation that prizes both diversity and unity as much as the United States, and Obama's America explains well that political and intellectual history. Fittingly, the author positions Obama squarely in the middle of that debate.
Drawing on speeches, books, newspaper columns, and media interviews from throughout the president's career, Reifowitz demonstrates great knowledge and understanding of his subject. He details how Obama emerged at the start of a new national narrative about an America guided by a unifying dedication to inclusiveness. That narrative necessarily includes both the nation's successes and its failures in protecting the interests of the diverse citizenry. Within this context, the book painstakingly documents Obama's personal journey from racial confusion to black nationalism to a liberal nationalism that embraced inclusiveness.
The author makes a convincing argument that, as Obama entered state and national politics, his rhetoric and thinking on race drew inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. As with King, Obama emphasized economic issues and universal values to build appeal with whites and other minorities, knowing full well that those issues disproportionately affected African Americans. To his credit, Reifowitz acknowledges some of the strategic excesses of his subject's race rhetoric, dubbing Obama's exaggerated take on 1960s liberalism as a "straw man" and "one-sided caricature" (p. 81). Still, Obama's approach, which seeks to unify by addressing racial issues in nonracial terms and universal principles, generally supports the author's thesis about the president's contribution to negotiating the tension between national identity and inclusiveness in the United States. Although Obama eventually benefitted politically from this way of thinking, Reifowitz persuasively argues that his subject carried these ideas with him years before achieving national prominence.
Given the author's overall argument, it would have been convenient for him to...