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Inaugural reads: Dreams From My Father and Obama's Challenge

Shortly before the November 4 election, I finished reading Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press), a straightforwardly told and absolutely absorbing autobiography. It would fit snugly into an African American literature survey alongside often-taught classics like Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the great Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Extremely well written, it shows Obama creating an identity for himself out of the many disparate pieces of his heritage, and it humanizes a figure who has already catapulted from larger-than-life to something approaching icon status. It was a book that paired well with those keywords "hope" and "change" that were fluttering around the election.

To usher in the Inauguration, I read a much more sobering book, Robert Kuttner's Obama's Challenge (Chelsea Green Press). Rather boldly sent to the printer before the election -- at the beginning of August '08 -- it's written as if Obama won the election.

This gamble would be stress-inducing to those who didn't breathe a sigh of relief until after the networks called Ohio, but I guess Kuttner knew as much about the election in advance as he seems to have known about the rips in the economy before the rest of us.

Obama's Challenge -- subtitled America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency -- is alternately frightening and depressing as Kuttner outlines the momentous tasks that lie ahead for the President-elect. You may think you have an idea of what those are already, but Kuttner offers perspective, a chance to step back that's hard to get from a diet of cable news.

The book is divided roughly into two halves -- one about how "transformative presidents" lead and the other providing an overview about the complexity of the damage to the economy. While the material about transformative presidencies flirts with, uh, hope (that word again), reading the financial chapters is kind of like enduring one of those extremely turbulent airplane flights where you wish you had decided to drive.

Kuttner's main point, though, is that for transformative presidents, "leadership often entails staking out a position not held by a majority of voters, and bringing the people around." Kuttner concentrates on the few presidents that he's pegged as transformative: Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ (or really a JFK/LBJ combo, where JFK provided the inspiration and LBJ the perspiration for enacting civil rights legislation).

Transformative presidents have the ability to make us as a nation strive to be better than we are -- they appeal to "the better angels of our nature," as Lincoln put it. George W. Bush, who had a unique opportunity to lead in the wake of 9/11, did not have the right stuff. The question is whether Obama will.

Kuttner hopes that Obama is that leader: "As we have seen from the campaign," he writes, "Obama is a work in progress. But I am betting that he possesses both the character and the political nerve to rise to the occasion -- as well as the occasion to rise to."

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