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A Polarizing President and Polarizing Books

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This week's double issue of Huffington arrives in the brief lull between the Republican and Democratic conventions. It is, of course, all about the November election. In a sweeping overview of President Obama's first term, Ryan Grim and Sam Stein describe Obama, just three months before election day, suffering from an "engagement gap," an almost unthinkable predicament for the man who stirred such passion four years ago. The reason, Grim and Stein write, is that "Obama has come to resemble the creature of Washington he campaigned against" -- not the transformational leader his supporters were expecting. In mapping the journey from Campaigning Obama to Governing Obama -- including a compelling re-telling of the legislative jostling around the stimulus bill -- Grim and Stein portray a president who entered office embodying the hopes of millions, now bracing for an election that is likely to be a lot tougher than anyone would have predicted. "How," they ask, "did a candidate who drew two million individuals to his inauguration and retained a 13 million-member email list lose that magic?"

And at a time when the polarization of our political discourse is seen as a given, Michael Calderone examines its effects on one of the newest and most robust cottage industries of our time: the Obama biography. Examining the spectrum of Obama treatments -- from Edward Klein's The Amateur, which tags Obama as "a narcissist" and "a bungler-in-chief," to David Maraniss's Barack Obama: The Story, a deeply-reported chronicle of the president's family history stretching back generations -- Calderone finds that the political book industry reflects the wider national trend of polarization. According to a recent Pew study, Americans' "values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years." As Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter and author of The Obamas, explains, the atmosphere of polarization greatly influenced the way her book was received: there was "confusion about whether this was on the left or right, a Fox book or an MSNBC book."

Elsewhere in the issue, Alice Hines reports on one of the more colorful pieces of political stagecraft: what the candidates eat. The tradition of public food consumption in American politics goes back to the barbecues thrown by Southern politicians, rowdy affairs with roasted pigs and free whisky and rum. Today, it's photo-ops at greasy spoon diners, roadside bakeries and ice cream parlors. Hines even catalogues President Obama's intake in a 48-hour period last month, mercifully without a calorie count: "Bacon, eggs, grits, buffalo wings, ribs, sausage, pepperoni pizza, iced tea and Miller Lite were only the start. At a farm, the President purchased fresh peaches, strawberries, sweet corn and cherries; at a bakery, it was a dozen chocolate chip cookies and an entire apple pie. At one café, Kozy Corners in the village of Oak Harbor, he was photographed sharing strawberry pie and whipped cream with a young boy." And then there are musings on candidates' indulgences -- President Obama's fondness for beer, and Mitt Romney's weakness for coffee-flavored ice cream, made even more notable because of his no-caffeine Mormonism. So, for the undecided voters still mulling it over, there's always the beer vs. ice cream tiebreaker.

This piece appears in Issue 12/13 of our FREE new weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

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