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Sunday, October 17, 2021

UCD Professor explores Obama’s brain

Getting inside the mind of one of the most influential individuals in the world certainly isn’t a common task. But that is exactly what Sasha Abramsky, a UC Davis professor, has attempted in his latest book “Inside Obama’s Brain”.

Abramsky is a self-proclaimed social justice journalist. While the similar field of investigative journalism concentrates more on gathering data, social justice journalism finds and investigates fundamental social problems by telling the story of the impact while incorporating conventional investigative techniques.

In addition, Abramsky also teaches writing through the University Writing Program department and occasionally sociology and American studies classes.

In his previous books, he has examined the “largely ignored and invisible people,” he said. His books have included investigations into the US criminal justice system as well as poverty and hunger.

Abramsky’s new book, however, is slightly different. While his previous books looked at anonymous individuals’ interactions with government policies, this book looks at Obama – a high profile creator of government policies.

His involvement in the book is not coincidence – he had been following the 2008 presidential campaign for months. Only weeks after the election he was asked to write “Inside Obama’s Brain.”

“I lucked out, I had been doing a lot of campaign reporting,” Abramsky said. “It literally fell into my lap. Who wouldn’t want to do it?”

Abramsky said he thought Obama’s personality was worthy to write about.

“I found [Obama] a fascinating character, but if it were George Bush I’d be struggling to fill pages,” he said.

Abramsky found two key points inside Obama’s brain. First, he is not a pure ideologist. There is more to Obama than his ideologies – he cannot be effective as a politician without his compromise and ambition, Abramsky said.

“He is a very shrewd political operator,” he said.

He found that while most politicians are thinking in the 24-hour news cycle agenda, Obama does not just think about tomorrow’s headlines.

“He has a vision of big-picture, systematic changes that can only emerge over a period of years,” he said.

Abramsky thinks this ability to think in the big picture is a rarity in American history.

“Obama runs up against bad headlines at least in part because his changes are occurring at a deeper level and on a slower timetable than the news media is attuned to,” Abramsky said.

The book is not a comprehensive biography but what Abramsky calls a psychological portrait.

“I didn’t want to write an intimate kiss and tell sort of book,” he said.

His goal was to get a sense of how Obama interacts with people in order to get into his mind, not to see every individual thought processes of the president.

“There’s so much going on in Obama’s brain,” Abramsky said. “His life story is so multi-dimensional.”

In order to get this psychological portrait, Abramsky interviewed hundreds of sources from all realms of Obama’s public and private life. These sources ranged from Obama’s book editors to former classmates to political associates. He also read anything and everything Obama has written.

The one thing Abramsky did not do, however, was interview Obama for the book. This lack of insight directly from Obama does not actually affect the book’s conclusions, Abramsky said.

“People tend to distort who they are and what their capabilities are,” he said. “People aren’t always the most reliable commentators on themselves.”

Abramsky said he was eager to depart from the grim side of politics that his other books explored and to write about a more positive aspect of US politics – Obama as an influential political figure.

“[Obama’s election] was a moment of US politics where we’ve let our optimism out, and that rarely happens,” Abramsky said.

KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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