This story is over 5 years old.


Young Obama Said the American Dream Is to Be Donald Trump

He didn't say it was a good thing.
Images: Steve Liss, Joe McNally via Getty Images

In 1991, Barack Obama was 29 years old and about to graduate from Harvard Law School. That year, he penned a paper with his buddy Robert Fisher called "Race and Rights Rhetoric" where he summed up the average American mindset in one rather brutal and prescient sentence: "I may not be Donald Trump now, but just you wait; if I don't make it, my children will."

That excerpt of that previously unpublished law school paper, and much more, is inside Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, the behemoth new 1,460-page biography of Obama that focuses on his early years. Although the New York Times called the book "a bloated, tedious and… ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive," it has at least a few interesting tidbits, including a young Obama's thoughtful analysis of the American psyche's Trumpian desires.


In "Race and Rights Rhetoric," Obama and Fisher argued that the civil rights rhetoric of the 1960s although "a vehicle for black liberation… has impeded, rather than facilitated [achieving] black empowerment." When Obama and Fisher analyzed the pitfalls of the American dream, both among the white majority and African Americans, they wrote:

[Americans have] a continuing normative commitment to the ideals of individual freedom and mobility, values that extend far beyond the issue of race in the American mind. The depth of this commitment may be summarily dismissed as the unfounded optimism of the average American—I may not be Donald Trump now, but just you wait; if I don't make it, my children will.

The paper argued that black Americans should "shift away from rights rhetoric and towards the language of opportunity." The way they saw it, "Precisely because America is a racist society… we cannot realistically expect white America to make special concessions towards blacks over the long haul."

Obama's later speeches very much echo this view: He continuously emphasized the "language of opportunity" during his swift political rise. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the moment Obama became a national figure, he said, "My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation." That focus on the power of the American dream was probably a big part of what got him elected president—but he has also been criticized for not doing enough to help black Americans.

Ironically, when Trump, who Obama identified as the object of so much American longing, actually became president, his inauguration speech made it clear that his presidency would have not have much to do with dreaming and hope.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.