I read in the newspaper this morning that President Biden has announced that all US forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, thus ending America’s longest war. It caused me to reflect upon some points Barack Obama makes in his memoir, A Promised Land: about the limitations of the presidency, regardless of the hype that it is the most powerful office in the world; and that America, as a nation has great potential in its projected power, along with the ideals which were the basis for the country’s constitution, but that it has so often failed to live up to its potential. Despite the negative tone of these sentiments, Obama’s book is essentially a positive reflection on his time in office and the potential of the country he led. At the same time, the book chronicles the fermenting issues that have come to define the political debate in the Trump and post-Trump era: the shift of the modern GOP to the right, starting as early as the 1960s according to Obama’s assessment, but significantly with the rise of the Tea Party faction during Obama’s presidency, with McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate in the 2007 election, and the rise of Donald Trump, himself, when he gained attention in the media by espousing the false belief in Birtherism, the assertion that Obama was not born in America, and that he was perhaps a Muslim, or even some kind of double agent.
Given the polarising of American politics, particularly since Obama became president, it goes without saying (except that saying it helps to frame the discussion of this review) that Barack Obama’s book will be roundly rejected by a large section of the population on political grounds, alone. Another section of the population will have already welcomed the book and pored over it. So there’s not much for a review like this to do, really, except to allow me to collect my thoughts and maybe interest the few who have not been polarised by political events in America over the last decade.
And it wouldn’t be honest to write about the book unless I stated from the outset, that while Obama was not a perfect president (who has been?) I believe he represented ideals about America that I feel have been challenged by the Trump presidency. That’s me, an Australian, looking from the outside in; my cards on the table.
And what are these ideals? Obama writes, “That America fell perpetually short of its ideals”. But as a candidate, hoping to unite enough support for his campaign, he writes, “the point was to win. I wanted to prove to Blacks, to whites – to Americans of all colors – that we could transcend the old logic, that we could rally a working majority around a progressive agenda, that we could place issues like inequality or lack of educational opportunity at the very center of the national debate and then actually deliver the goods.” As a Black American, Obama would always support progressive agendas to the limits of political possibility, particularly regarding racial inequality, but also with a concern for poorer Americans and issues related to women and sexual equality. Obama’s tone is somewhat more pragmatic when he wins office: “The Presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.”
But Obama’s ideals are not just centred on the practical problems of life (equality, education, poverty). “I chafed against books that dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism,” he writes in his discussion about America’s place in the world. Obama recalls how he was drawn into politics because he believes in big ideas; ideas which have their foundation in the constitution and national narratives like the American Dream. In this regard, Obama is astutely aware of his place in history and the significance of his election, given his being a black man with a Muslin-sounding name. He is also conscious of ideals like the American Idea, encompassing notions of equality, a better life and opportunity, as espoused by writers like Tocqueville, Thoreau and the Founding Fathers, and embraced by people like the Wright brothers, as well as many creative artists and inventors. Obama’s voice isn’t boastful when he frames his own story like this. One senses that Obama is searching for a way to understand his own rise to the presidency, despite his relative inexperience, despite his acknowledged shortcomings and doubts; to understand what his tenure means in the wider scope of history and as a symbol of what is possible for others. It is a humble speculation rather than a triumphal shout, which seeks to question not only the progress America has made as a nation, but the areas where it still falls short.
This is evident in his discussion around matters relating to women. Obama’s wife, Michelle, is shown to be a strong, intelligent woman, easily his equal, and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, are portrayed as bright and independent children who cope with the unusual years of Obama’s presidency well. But Obama is also concerned with the women who work with him and advise him. When he becomes aware that his female advisors are not as forthcoming as they should be, he actively seeks to understand why. He holds a dinner to give women in his staff an opportunity to tell him what is wrong. And when he realises that women in his administration sometimes remain quiet because they are over talked by men, or have their ideas rephrased and then owned by male counterparts, Obama addresses the issue with other men in his administration, taking the enlightened view that women should not feel suppressed by outdated patriarchal habits, and the pragmatic view that he does not wish to lose their expertise, which he needs.
Naturally, Obama’s book tells the story of major pieces of legislation, of unfolding events, and of political wins and losses: the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster; the ongoing problems of Israel and Palestine; the underwear bomber; the challenges of Iran; the problems with health care; the Global Financial Crisis and more. The reader is given a detailed account of the problems, failures and wins of each of these situations. But Obama also places each issue in context, whether it concerns the withdrawal of British Petroleum from Iraq in the 1950s that led to the Iranian revolution, or the history of America’s health system and how Theodore Roosevelt’s loss of a vote, along with post-World War II employer needs, shaped it, or the long origins of the Arab/Israeli dispute from as early last century during World War I. Obama shapes an understanding of the issues and shows that they are complex because they have history.
And he applies this same principal to the telling of his own story and the political battles he faced, from his early race for the Senate, and his experience in the primaries for his run at the presidency. Obama’s story is interesting because not only is his election as the first Black president important, but because of his coming to office at a time when social inequality was most prominently on display. The first impacts of what was to become known as the Global Financial Crisis happened towards the end of Bush’s presidency, and Obama tells the story of attending a meeting as Candidate Obama with President Bush and Candidate McCain in the closing months of Bush’s presidency, in which Obama’s contribution acted as a litmus test for his viability as a candidate. His handling of the GFC as president is discussed in detail, including unpopular decisions to bail out irresponsible banks, the means by which his administration decided on which banks to save, as well as the legal constraints, such as contracts [see the quote on the sidebar, for example], which prevented Obama acting more punitively against bankers. This is one of the interesting themes of Obama’s account: that he gives a sense of the stretch and limitations of the power of the presidency, in contrast to the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the public, but with the accompanying weight of expectation and sense of responsibility that the job entails. This is partly illustrated in the hyper-partisan politics that were becoming weaponised by groups like the GOP’s Tea Party at the time. It seems unbelievable, for instance, that Obama had to accept a draft of the Recovery Act, a bill to save American livelihoods with a huge stimulus package, which had passed through the Senate once. It went back to the House for further amendments, but in that form it had no hope of passing the Senate a second time after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat after his death. Obama had no choice but to sign into law the first version.
Apart from his explanation about the shift to the right of the GOP, Obama also offers an interesting explanation of the American health system (at least to a foreigner, America’s health system always seems unbelievable) as an introduction to discussion about the Affordable Health Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Like the machinations in getting the Recovery Act passed, and many other pieces of legislation, in the face of a hostile Senate – Obama notes there was no political capital for Republicans to cooperate with him – Obama gives a sense of the difficulties, compromises and tactics needed to pass major legislation like this.
Obama’s discussion of foreign policy also highlights the limitations for action in the presidency. Apart from the limitations placed by Congress, is the relationships with world leaders, as well as organisations like the UN. Two of the most interesting accounts involve the Arab Spring and the fall of strong men leaders like Gaddafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time political leader, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Mubarak’s fall not only serves to highlight the fundamental weakness of strong-men leaders – they tend to be inflexible and their power is ultimately underwritten by a willingness to do violence against their own people – but to highlight the implicit strength of the American system, despite the frustrations of its limiting checks and balances. Obama offers a window into the dealings between leaders, as he tries to persuade Mubarak to step down during a telephone call. Instead, Mubarak sends troops against his people and is soon removed from office. Gaddafi also uses troops to slaughter thousands of his people in an attempt to quell protests inspired by the Tunisian situation. Obama is at first frustrated by English and French decisions to go to the Security Council for permission to make Libya a no-fly zone, a pointless gesture, since Gaddafi was using ground troops to suppress his people. Amazingly, Obama’s suggestion that America offers a different plan is welcomed with relief once the situation in Libya is properly assessed.
Obama’s account of the search for Osama bin Laden reveals the high wire act that the presidency can be. The evidence pointing to bin Laden being in a compound in Pakistan, the secretive arrangements to put together a mission, and the almost disastrous landing of the Blackhawk helicopter in the compound on the night of the mission, is the kind of detail one expects from spy thrillers. The fact that Obama went after bin Laden, despite the political suicide he risked if bin Laden wasn’t in the Compound – that their intelligence was wrong – or the mission failed and cost American lives, is the kind of ‘bet’ that Obama discusses throughout the book. Running for the presidency, itself, is a bet. But everything after that is a gamble, too. Simple problems never come across the presidential desk. The president only ever sees problems that have been kicked up the line, too hard for underlings and other agencies; none of them with a clear solution and any decision only ever having a marginal chance at complete success.
On a personal level, the book showcases Obama’s wry sense of humour, he is humble despite his achievements, and acknowledges his failures. But we get a sense that whatever personal failings Obama might have – and he is always willing to enumerate upon those and the mistakes he has made – that his temperament and guiding philosophies were well-suited to the position.
As the book closes, we get glimpses of issues that would continue to affect his presidency after this narrative closes. The economy continued to be weak and Obama had burned up a lot of political capital to get major legislation like Obamacare through the Senate. He wasn’t certain that he would have a second term. And the closing chapters also make reference to Donald Trump’s rise as a political commentator in the media. We end with Obama’s first term not complete, because this is only the first of two volumes, as Obama has explained at the beginning of the book. Typically, two things he makes fun of himself over, are his big ears and his tendency to ramble. But this book doesn’t ramble. It’s long because there is so much in a presidency to cover, and there wouldn’t be much point in covering it if the president wasn’t willing to give an insight into his thinking, into the background behind problems he was trying to solve, to place foreign affairs in context and to give us a sense of the dramas that unfolded and how they impacted him and his family. As I read this, I did not have a sense that this was a rambling narrative, but the account of a gifted writer. Obama has the ability to bring detail and complex ideas to the page and not only make them readable, but engrossing and easily understood. The book delves into the minutiae of the presidency, but it also offers a larger narrative: of how the American Idea helped Obama to understand his own place in the world, as well as what his presidency suggests about America’s willingness to embrace a positive change. The presidency has enormous power as well as limitations, but what is not written in the constitution, is that a leader is not just a political figure, but can set the tone of a country.
If you are at least sympathetic to Obama’s presidency, then this is worth a read. If you think Obama was the worst president ever and did nothing good and is personally suspect (as I have heard from someone I talked to a few months back) it would still be good for you to read this, even if you know you’re opinion won’t change. Having an informed opinion, no matter what that opinion, is always a good thing.