Looking Down from the High Ground

‘A Promised Land’
President Barack Obama delivers his farewell address on January 10, 2017 at McCormick Place in Chicago (CNS photo/John Gress, Reuters).

As an ardent and occasionally shameless admirer of President Barack Obama, I am chagrined to report that his newest memoir, A Promised Land, is a very tough read. It’s too long, too wonkish, too determined to explain all sides of a particular problem or political decision, and curiously of two minds about its audience. I realize this judgment runs counter to most other reviews, so let me explain. On one hand, Obama wants to give the reader a sense of “what it is like to be the president of the United States.” What is the daily routine? How does it feel to be under such scrutiny, to have one’s every word and action questioned and analyzed? To suddenly be given “the authority to blow up the world”? How does family life go on in the White House and under the unforgiving glare of the media? How can a president and his family maintain a semblance of normal life in such a fish bowl? How does a president find a moment of solitude and decompression in a job that demands nothing less than his complete attention for fourteen or more hours a day?

We learn that Obama curses a lot, jokes a lot, cries sometimes, and enjoys a weekend martini and his regular pick-up basketball game. A child of divorce who met his own father just once after infancy, his responsibilities as husband and father are of the utmost importance to him. He is naturally concerned about how the pressures and dangers of such a public life affect Michelle and his young daughters, although the children seem to thrive. Michelle, he makes clear, never shared his presidential aspirations, and took to the campaign trail reluctantly. Between the demands of the office and the needs of his family, he searches for a measure of calm and perspective in a situation where one’s domestic political opponents are out for blood and the nation’s adversaries are eager to exploit any weakness. Nor is there any escape from how America’s tortured racial history and continuing strife impinge on how the decisions of the nation’s first Black president are received. He sees his election as a vindication of America’s promise of equality for all, but also as an answer of sorts to the question of just who he is and what his destiny might be as the American child of a Black African father and a white, Kansas-born mother. 

At the same time, Obama wants to conduct a tutorial on a host of issues and conflicts that confronted him during his campaign and first term (2009–2013), ranging from the nitty-gritty of his surprising win in the Iowa caucuses to the engineering challenges of stopping the Deepwater Horizon’s catastrophic oil spill. (This first volume of A Promised Land covers his administration through May 2011, halfway through his third year in office.) As one might imagine, he does this with admirable clarity and attention to detail, although that detail can at times make the book read like a blizzard of names. The pace is relentless. Seemingly everything of consequence is covered, from the history of U.S. relations with post-Soviet Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, Israel, and so on, to the ever-present threat of terrorism, the economic and political challenges of curbing climate change, the conundrums of global trade, the higher math of bank bailouts, the political bargaining surrounding the Affordable Care Act, and much more. As a result, there is a pedagogical tone to the book that can try even the most attentive student. Obama’s two very different writerly ambitions never quite mesh, and the result is that the livelier, more personal interludes with family, friends, and colleagues come as welcome respite from the prolix focus on issues, decisions, conferences, and endless meetings with “my team.” In short, A Promised Land is likely to prove an invaluable resource for historians, but a decorative ornament or totem on other bookshelves.   

“A Promised Land” is likely to prove an invaluable resource for historians, but a decorative ornament or totem on other bookshelves.

Obama succeeds at reminding the reader that his presidency, like most, was an endless string of crises he had little or nothing to do with creating but had to solve. He came to office, of course, in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. His options were limited. Banks were going under, and unless the financial system could be salvaged, another Great Depression loomed. He had little sympathy for bankers, whom he characterizes as “clueless,” but punishing them, as those on the Left were demanding, would do little to stabilize the economy or put people back to work. With the “world economy in free fall,” his first task was to prevent “further disaster,” not “remake the economic order.” Despite his undeniable rhetorical skills, he sees himself as a dealmaker, not the utopian agent of change some voters imagined he was. “Trying to straddle the line between the public’s demand for Old Testament justice and the financial markets’ need for reassurance, we ended up satisfying no one,” he admits. That was a result often repeated. 

The TARP Act passed under President George W. Bush, his own administration’s Recovery Act (which garnered only three Republican votes), and the “stress tests” imposed on financial institutions succeeded in recapitalizing the banks and broke the economic panic. The banks would repay, with interest, the enormous sums lent by the government, although the public seems to have judged that a minor accomplishment when weighed against the ongoing ravages of unemployment and foreclosures. In any event, Obama also faced the impending collapse of the automobile industry. Again, he and his “team” came up with a solution. As his handling of these initial calamities showed, he sought compromise, not capitulation, from his political opponents on both the Right and the Left. “My first hundred days in office revealed a basic strand of my political character,” he writes. “I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision. Whether I was demonstrating wisdom or weakness would be for others to judge.”

A certain fatalism seems to have accompanied those outcomes. “That was another lesson the presidency was teaching me: Sometimes it didn’t matter how good your process was,” he writes. “Sometimes you were just screwed, and the best you could do was have a stiff drink—and light up a cigarette.” Obama later confesses that the demands of the presidency enabled him to accomplish something else: he eventually gave up a furtive smoking habit.  

One real strength of the book is the acutely observed portraits of both foreign leaders and his Republican antagonists. Germany’s Angela Merkel is praised for her deliberate and untheatrical approach to politics and international affairs, one that obviously mirrored the president’s own “No Drama Obama” temperament. “Merkel’s eyes were big and bright blue and could be touched by turns with frustration, amusement, or hints of sorrow,” he writes. “Otherwise her stolid appearance reflected her no-nonsense, analytical sensibility.” France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy was a very different piece of work. He “was all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric.” In a gossipy aside, Obama tells us that Sarkozy wore lifts in his shoes. During his initial meeting with Vladimir Putin, held at Putin’s lavish dacha outside Moscow, Obama is subjected to a nearly hour-long harangue on U.S. arrogance and depredations in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise. Putin reminded Obama of a Chicago ward boss, “except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto,” he writes. Those pols, like Putin, were “tough, street smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade.”

We are told similarly shrewd and amusing things about Republicans and their zero-sum approach to politics. Senators Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe make a show of bipartisanship but a show is all it is. Mitch McConnell, who famously boasted that his goal as Senate majority leader was to make Obama a one-term president, is as cynical and charming as he appears. “As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he appear to have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform,” Obama writes. Joe Biden told Obama of an incident in the Senate when McConnell blocked a bill Biden was sponsoring. When Biden tried to explain what he hoped the bill would accomplish, McConnell stopped him by raising his hand. “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care,” McConnell said.

Given the tenacious Republican opposition to every Democratic initiative and Trump’s ascendency, A Promised Land is a useful reminder of how much Obama’s administration actually accomplished. In his first two years in office, he spent much of his political capital passing the Affordable Care Act, and as a consequence Democrats suffered a resounding defeat in the 2010 midterms, which handed both houses of Congress to the Republicans. At the time, even sympathetic critics thought Obama should have focused exclusively on the economy rather than such an ambitious new government program. Obama does not often concede serious error. He wants to insist that given the political, economic, military, or geopolitical constraints he was working with, he usually made the best decision available. But no one is that wise or that lucky. To clinch these sorts of arguments, Obama relies on transitions such as “still” and “yet,” or phrases like “in a perfectly rational world that might have made sense.” These caveats come across as much too lawyerly. Nor does he offer a defense of his much-criticized use of drones to assassinate terrorist suspects. The agreement with the Iraqis to withdraw U.S. troops is mentioned in passing, but not the consequent rise of the Islamic State. Presumably he will tackle those choices in the second volume of his memoir. His somewhat surprising deployment of more troops to Afghanistan in 2010 was the result of lengthy negotiations with the Pentagon and commanders in the field—in short, a lot of “process.” “It forced us to refine America’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan in a way that prevented mission creep,” Obama writes. What it did not do was provide an exit strategy for the longest war in U.S. history, a quagmire that Trump exploited in his campaign and that President Biden now inherits.

He’s a master of using a rhetoric of elevation to ennoble himself and his allies while casting implicit moral aspersions on his political foes.

I have never understood the unhinged reaction so many Republicans had to Obama, since it seemed to me that he usually made the most reasonable and fair-minded case for his agenda, often acknowledging the legitimate concerns of his political opponents. Perhaps the best explanation I’ve come across for Republican rage was by the Week’s columnist Damon Linker, a former First Things editor. Linker suggests that it is not racial animosity but the way Obama places himself above the ideological struggle that drives his political rivals nuts. Obama, Linker writes, “doesn’t know how to speak in any other rhetorical register than above and beyond the partisan fray.... He’s a master of using a rhetoric of elevation to ennoble himself and his allies while casting implicit moral aspersions on his political foes, whom he portrays as self-evidently dishonorable, all the while sounding as if he’s merely reciting the indisputable facts of the case. His tone at all times is that of a disapproving parent: You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

To be honest, much of A Promised Land is written in that register, and it wearies even an Obama enthusiast like me. A good example is Obama’s discussion of the bill that ended the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding homosexuals. Obama assures the reader that he does not dismiss as “bigots” those who disagree with him about LGBTQ issues. Why? Because he himself had once held similarly unenlightened attitudes. In college he became aware of the damaging effects of such prejudice. “I felt ashamed of my past behavior—and learned to do better,” he writes. Friendships with LGBTQ people “opened my heart to the human dimensions of issues that I’d once thought of in mainly abstract terms.”

Unmentioned is the fact that Obama opposed legalizing same-sex marriage at the time. Nor does he discuss why he changed his mind about “marriage equality” shortly before the 2012 election or how partisan reasons might have influenced that decision. He claims not to judge those with traditional religious objections to issues such as same-sex marriage, but then describes his own evolution as the gradual abandonment of precisely such supposed bigotry. Finally, he equates disagreement with the LGBTQ community’s call for equal rights with the historical battle against racism and segregation. Despite his demurral, the logic of his argument casts into the darkness those who think moral distinctions can be made between the evil of racial discrimination and religious objections to redefining marriage. Even supporters of same-sex marriage should be able to see how galling Obama’s disapproving parental tone can be.

The specter of Donald Trump, the “country’s leading distraction,” haunts this book. Why did America turn to an undeniable bigot and transparent charlatan after it had shown so much promise of overcoming its original sin by placing a Black man with a foreign-sounding name in the Oval Office? Replacing Trump with Biden has brought a momentary course correction. But we remain a deeply divided country, torn by conflicts over fundamental issues, not just of economic fairness and health-care accessibility, but of perhaps even more perplexing questions about family formation, gender, sexual morality, and abortion. Obama too often dismisses these disagreements as “wedge issues” or “culture war” distractions. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party revealed how corrupt and cynical the GOP has been in its decades-long assault on the good and necessary things that government must do. But in a democracy, where “public sentiment,” as Lincoln famously remarked, “is everything,” the moral and cultural anxieties of half the population cannot be assuaged by claiming the moral high ground only for oneself. To avoid the return of Trumpism, we should admit that the consequences of disorienting societal change are uncertain. No one should declare victory until we know what has truly been won.

 

A Promised Land
Barack Obama
Crown
$45 | 751 pp.

Published in the February 2021 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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