On Barack Obama's A Promised Land
Toby Leah | February 2021
Barack Obama walking with Joe Biden in 2015
or a man whose campaign promised America “Yes we can," Barack Obama seems to ponder the fact that in the United States today, maybe we can’t. Bringing together his previous books Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama writes of his upbringing, his quest to find his identity and his path towards political power. A Promised Land, part one of Obama’s memoirs delving into his presidency, takes us up to the end of his first term in office. The memoir reveals a man frustrated by party politics and the deck dealt to him by the Bush administration. Barack Obama is a man I have always admired; I see a man who speaks with humility and an understanding of the world uncommon to American politicians. Yet Obama, in his self-reflections, of which there are a substantial number, seems to almost doubt his own place in history. He remains a product of memories, speech highlights, and rhetoric. A Promised Land cuts through all of the noise to reveal his contemplations of political life.
Obama’s dedication to the promise of the United States appears unwavering. The promises of liberty, democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. He writes that the world is watching to see “if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed”, urging young people to take up the mantle and remake the world to one that aligns with humanity’s greatest strengths (xvi). His hope for the America that exists today, however troubled, divided and unsettled, for want of a better word is doubtful. Who can blame him? The most hopeful men and women of the United States would surely have had some of their hope dashed in the past twenty years. These two decades have seen 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, record deportations, a cataclysmic pandemic, and continuing racial injustice, all the more apparent in the age of social media.
A Promised Land is, first and foremost, interesting, engaging and entertaining. But, moving beyond the stories Obama tells throughout the book, I see a man tired and frustrated by the political system, battered and bruised by those who seek to pull him down. I question whether Obama has lost some of what attracted me to him in the first place, his optimism and charm dented. His outlook on the world is fascinating, but I see him consumed by the failures of America in attempting to live up to the way it presents itself on the world stage. There are sprinklings of humour, memories with Michelle and his daughters, parents and grandparents. But, I’m left wanting more of the personal. For a man who has had everything scrutinised to the finest degree, I can understand his reluctance to overshare, but for all his exceptional qualities, it is his personality and his warmth and familiarity that makes him so adored. I sometimes discuss with friends about a dream dinner party, placing Barack and Michelle Obama at the top of my list of guests. This is not because of the political insight, or even necessarily their experiences, but because they have personality. The ability to light up a room, the ability to just speak and have every person’s full attention. Despite seeing glimpses, I fear Barack Obama has been too cautious in A Promised Land, too reluctant to say the wrong thing. Whether intentional or not, the book leaves me feeling hopeless about the system. Instead of a rallying cry to exact change, I hear a man considering the implausibility of meaningful, sustained progress.
A Hope for a Nation
Reading about Obama’s Presidential campaign transports me back to my own thoughts and feelings at age nine. Being from the United Kingdom, our own press has always been captivated by the United States, almost as if we are an old, dying lady turning to our much younger and fitter son or daughter. I barely remember having any opinion of President George W. Bush, but I remember seeing this man with a unique name, Barack Hussein Obama, smiling, standing tall as thousands and thousands of people watched on, cheering. I can’t recall seeing such joy arise from politics before that point in my life. The political process had always seemed so sad and depressing.
Obama conveys some of the spirit that made people fall in love with him. In response to Michelle asking why he needed to be president, he tells her, “I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath … the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in – they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it” (77). In eight years, Barack Obama went from sleeping on a couch in his friend’s hotel room after failing to get in the 2000 National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles to addressing the nation after being elected the first African American President of the United States of America. After celebrating becoming a Senator, he tells Michelle it’s the “Magic beans, baby. Magic beans” (54). I picture him beaming, the same perfect smile that sits on the book’s cover, still blessed with the hope of transforming a nation. We read the words of a man determined to create change, no matter the obstacles that stand in his way. His real opponent was “the implacable weight of the past; the inertia, fatalism, and fear it produced” (127). It is precisely the triumph against such a history, centuries of racial oppression, that means so much to so many people. Going from Barack Obama to Donald Trump is also what is so painful to those same people. The hope and optimism that one man brought to long neglected communities, was taken away from those same communities so quickly by another. The fact is, Barack Obama is always going to be the first African American President of the United States. The hope from that moment, however diminished in the present, will be a part of history.
A Man Losing Hope
Obama’s hopes begin to fade soon after inauguration. Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, tells him “Trust me… The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.” (233). He describes with poise the passionate opposition of Republicans viewing him as going too far, the scrutiny of his own party, and the critique of progressives for not going far enough. In considering the financial crisis, he flirts with suggestions that he maybe should have gone further, changing Wall Street forever, instead of returning the status quo to its pre-crisis position. The financial crisis itself dominates Obama’s own perceptions of his first term. I sense a feeling of paralysis, a man trying to move America forwards, but feeling powerless. He writes that “It’s often said that a president gets too much credit when the economy is doing well, and too much blame when it slumps,” (301), no mercy given to him for suffering the effects of a crash occurring during the Bush administration. I see a man who is too hard on himself, ruing his clumsy words, but frustrated by the willingness of the most liberal writers “to flay politicians on their own side”, separating them from their conservative counterparts who rarely do the same (144). It is little surprise he beats himself up, the weight of his decisions more important than ever before. Making mistakes is something a President cannot regularly afford to do, but in response to any mistake made, he seeks to explain and justify himself. There are some who will never admit to making a mistake, but Obama addresses criticism head on, humble enough to consider alternative solutions. His flexibility and openness is admirable, but I wonder whether he should have more faith in his own judgement. He is, after all, a highly accomplished and intelligent man.
Partisan politics, more than anything else, seems to be the biggest contributor to Obama’s dented hopes. The inflexibility of politicians is infuriating for the reader, let alone how infuriating it must have been for Obama in pursuing his agenda in response to refusal upon refusal by John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to cooperate. Relentless opposition proved to be a successful strategy for the party without the Presidency. Indeed, it paid off for Republicans in the 2010 Midterm elections, providing a major setback to achieving Obama’s objectives. His hopes took a further dent a year later as debates surrounded Libya. Obama observed Republicans at first in favour of American intervention in Libya, switching quickly against it to contradict the President. Obama notes “Effectively, they were putting me on notice that even issues of war and peace, life and death, were now part of a grim, unrelenting partisan game” (667). Obama remains dignified and respectful, despite his deep frustrations in his quest to change America. I wonder if he could give us more. More of his anger and anguish at having his hands tied. He is extremely emotive when he talks about healthcare. The issue is so intimately bound with people’s personal experiences of life, death and everything in between. Obama himself was motivated by the thought of his late mother.
As I am from a country where universal healthcare has been guaranteed for over seventy years, it can be baffling how a person’s access to healthcare can be so contentious. To me, common decency should prevail and appreciation should always be given to the fact that some are unable to survive in a system they cannot afford. Obama writes of his celebration of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a long and hard fought battle to restructure American healthcare, representing one major victory in an often tiresome war for change. The night of its passage, “meant more to me, a promise fulfilled” than his Presidential election win (426). Yet even this moment of great pride for Obama is tinged with sadness, the Act far removed from the sweeping healthcare reform Obama hoped for. The moment represents one of the few victories Obama highlights against the relentless resistance to his objectives. Given the fact so many have pushed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, however imperfect it may be, it is disheartening to talk of taking healthcare away from any person who may need it.
A Lasting Sadness
The sinister side of politics is all too apparent, as Obama cites numerous occasions of hate and demonisation targeting him and his family. Hope is, after all, likely to be affected by hate. Experiencing virulent racism was of course nothing new to Barack or Michelle Obama, such continuing hatred a staunch rejection of any notion of the existence of a post-racial America, which some scholars had proposed following Obama’s presidential victory. He talks of the rise of the Tea Party in the late 2000s, portraying Obama as Heath Ledger’s Joker, and repeatedly suggesting Obama was born in Kenya, or that Obama was Muslim. Such conspiracy theories were never aimed at his white predecessors. I am left wondering how racism impacted Obama as President. He is quick to comment that his predecessors too faced abuse and hate. I fear he is attempting to avoid causing offence, instead of fully unpicking the racial impetus to abuse directed his way publicly. There is an added venom to racial hatred. The number of threats directed at Obama exceeded anything the Secret Service had ever seen prior to Obama even becoming president (137). Michelle is told losing the presidential election would be a good thing, because it’d be better to lose an election than to lose her husband. The significance of threats against Barack Obama’s life is not hidden, but its impact lessened, almost normalised in his words. I’d like to hear more about how this affected Obama’s mindset. Instead it seems to just linger, adding to a list of events and situations chipping away at the book’s early hopefulness.
This is further emphasised by Obama foreshadowing the rise of right-wing sentiment and conspiracy theories into the mainstream of the Republican Party. He points to John McCain’s choice of running mate, Sarah Palin, the “potent disrupter”, for fuelling the fires of distrust and hate in the Republican electorate (169). The right-wing of the Republican Party becoming more mainstream, “a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political experience would threaten to blot out everything - your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own senses, your eyes and ears, told you to be true (170).” I find it hard to disassociate this statement with Donald Trump’s “fake news”, and the repeated claims of electoral fraud after the end of the 2020 election, despite evidence to the contrary. I doubt the irony is lost on Obama, as he later speaks of Trump repeatedly badgering him in the political press to reveal his birth certificate. This was not simply an attack against Obama’s Americanness, but an attack against Obama’s blackness. Obama notes that the extra airtime Donald Trump received lifted him to the top of the polls for the 2012 Republican nomination. He quotes Michelle, “people think it’s all a game. They don’t care that there are thousands of men with guns out there who believe every word that’s being said” (675). Michelle Obama’s words stand ever more poignant given the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6th 2021. Trump “understood instinctively what moved the conservative base most, and he offered it up in an unadulterated form” (675). I am left questioning whether Obama was aware of Donald Trump’s political potential. Like so many, did he underestimate his potential reach?
But it is the end of A Promised Land which leaves a sadness that remains after putting the book back onto the shelf. It shows a bleak assessment of party politics, emphasising the diminished hope of a man who offered so much himself. Obama leaves us with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a mission he helped orchestrate. He is bugged by the question, “Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist?”, the political parties united only through hate and revenge (699). I can only imagine what Obama could have achieved had the financial crisis not dictated those early years of his time in office. Instead, by 2012, nearing the end of his first term, I see a man dejected and demoralised. However true it may be, it is depressing that a country can only unite against a common enemy, the love for a country crossing party divides only when committed to killing. Although Obama imagines an America uniting in the same way to reduce poverty, or against climate change, he's left accepting that his vision may be out of reach. The sharp polarisations that exist today, four and a bit years after Barack Obama left the White House, provide us with a daily reminder of how much work remains to be done to unite the United States. I worry that Obama’s difficulty in exacting the change he once thought possible has damaged his own hopes. Although it may well be naive to believe in a utopian vision of the United States, it is vital that the hope in the possibility of that vision remains.
A Longing for Normality
Aside from the politics, movements of palpable warmth shine through. Sprinklings of joyous moments of Barack the father, husband, son, grandson, brother, and friend add a human touch in between the frustrations of political manoeuvring. I’m left wanting more. After all, this is the Obama we can all relate to. It is clear that it is the family and close circle of friends that surrounded Barack Obama before, during and after the White House, that has kept him grounded. Meeting Michelle, getting married, and the birth of Malia and Sasha are quickly skirted over, undeniably because Barack wishes to retain some of the privacy that the public eye has taken away from him and his family, the normalcy of life taken away with notoriety. Yet, it is these moments I wish to hear more about. The personal experiences, the moments we think of most whenever there is space to think of ourselves.
Obama describes a recurring dream during his Presidency, in a city, with nowhere he has to be, nowhere he has to go, nobody knows who he is. “I settle down on a nearby bench, pop open the cap on my drink, take a sip, and just watch the world passing by. I feel like I’ve won the lottery” (545). Of course, Obama knows all too well the sacrifices he had to make to begin a journey down the path to executive power. Yet, he seems to ponder a life away from the spotlight. Moments such as the thrills and the stress of watching and then coaching Sasha’s fourth grade basketball team with his friend and personal aide Reggie Love add a much-needed humanity. Understandably, he “cherished the normal ‘dad stuff’” (541). These are the things that bind an extraordinary man with ordinary people: the love we share for our families. I’m struck by the experience of his daughters, specifically how difficult it must be to have your voice heard in your own right, and not just because of your parents’ prestige. It is a testament to Barack and Michelle that they managed to balance parenting Malia and Sasha with the hectic schedule (maybe an understatement) of President and First Lady. It is the description of Barack and Michelle’s moments as parents that made me laugh. For example, as Senator, taking Malia and Sasha to Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Obama talks of being recognised, his heart sinking at the thought of his daughters wondering what happened to their dad. The anxiety he felt was quickly followed by laughter as his daughters suggest he use the alias “Johnny McJohn John” and talk in a high voice to stop people from noticing him (60). We see the fondness Obama has for his team, and any volunteer helping his numerous campaigns. I am impressed by something so simple as Obama learning the names of as many of his staff as possible. His relationship with his grandma Toot is particularly heartwarming. The love and admiration he has for her, genuine and pure, a “quiet hero” one of many “mothers and fathers, grandparents, who have worked hard and sacrificed all their lives”, in order for their children and grandchildren to live a better life (199). A relationship like Barack and Toot’s is one so many of us can relate to. My own Grandad, cut from the same cloth, prepared to give his whole being to making his daughter and grandchildren happy. Michelle’s love and support is also ever-present. Had it been Michelle and not Barack who took the first step into politics, I would not be too surprised if President Obama had in fact been President Michelle Obama. Despite the enormous pressure of political life on any family, Obama still points out the bonuses of the job. Inviting over Toni Morrison and Meryl Streep, Michelle and Barack sitting in on musical workshops in the White House run by Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney serenading Michelle with a rendition of ‘Michelle.’ It’s not all doom and gloom.
I find Obama most adept at writing about foreign policy. An American exceptionalist stance in foreign policy can sometimes be rather isolationist, under appreciating difference and the global context. Obama, however, gives a thoughtful history of the issues, both educational and interesting, providing a brief but rich history to frame world events. I wonder whether his upbringing played a significant part in this, as grew up partly in Hawaii, away from the contiguous United States, spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, and as a young man visited his family in Kenya. I see a man unlimited by borders. His tact and warmth appear to make him more widely appreciated on the world stage. I feel as if he is freer away from the United States, in his element at international summits and conferences, and meeting with world leaders. In a rush to avoid snowstorms, we read how Obama rushes to find and confront the Chinese, Brazilian, Indian and South African delegations, needing their support for a climate agreement at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The other nations begrudgingly give Obama their backing, leading Reggie Love to comment “I gotta say, boss…that was some real gangster shit back there” (515). This and moments of humour from Michelle, such as describing the President’s Daily Brief, a CIA-prepared summary of world events and intelligence, as “The Death Destruction, and Horrible Things Book”, add a normality to the often bizarre world of international diplomacy (313). That’s a book I’d like to read.
A Promised Land
What then is to be made of the legacy of Barack Obama’s first term in office? Given the fact that this is only book one of his presidential memoirs, a complete answer cannot yet be given. The election of Barack Obama epitomises the hopes and dreams of millions who thought they would never see a person of colour elected to be the most powerful person in the western world. Obama writes of Sonia Sotomayor’s adopted nephews, both Korean American, “squirming in their Sunday best. They would take for granted that their aunt was on the U.S. Supreme Court, shaping the life of a nation - as would kids across the country. Which was fine. That’s what progress looks like,” (391). In much the same way, the fact that children around the globe took for granted watching a black man become sworn in as President of the United States is progress. Yet, that progress is tinged with sadness; the fight for racial justice will continue for years to come. I feel Obama’s words on race could be more forceful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a phenomenal writer in her own right, wishes Obama has more to say on race, wishing that he let the racist incidents described just be, letting them breathe instead of writing in a way that keeps the conversation comfortable for white Americans (Ngozi Adichie, 2020). Obama describes the fallout from answering a question on the prominent black scholar Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in which he had said the police may have “acted stupidly” in arresting the professor, and cited the long history of abuse suffered by black and Latino Americans at the hands of the police (397). Obama’s words were inoffensive, but I wonder whether an experience such as this where the media swarmed around his comments and dominated the headlines for days may have contributed to some of his reluctance to be more frank on racial issues. Especially given the fact the Gates incident represented the largest drop in support among white voters than from any other event during Obama’s Presidency. Despite racial progress through Obama’s election, the incident highlighted white America’s failure to accept the racist experiences of people of colour at the hands of law enforcement. Experiences which some fail to accept until this day.
One wonders if Obama had ran for President in the age of mass misinformation on social media, whether he would be President of the United States, such is the vile, racist abuse and conspiracy theories circulating online every single day. Of course, we can only speculate, but it would be no foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, the further turn to the right of the Republican Party under President Trump appears almost a united and direct response against the election of President Obama, building on from the sentiments exploited by the Tea Party chapters. I would say this is Obama’s unwanted and unplanned legacy. Some would say that backlash to progress is inevitable. The United States is well used to switching from red to blue and blue to red. Academics will no doubt debate Barack Obama’s legacy in the context of the rise of Trumpism for decades to come. I find the response to Obama’s jokes at Trump’s expense at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner rather apt, “the audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile” (692). Obama’s second book may shed some more light on Obama’s understanding of America’s sharp turn to the right under President Trump, and how much he considers the anxieties of white voters a factor in such a turn. Whether or not Obama unpicks America’s racist past and present in more depth remains to be seen. I fear he is reluctant to go deeper, perhaps fearing the backlash of laying out some home truths about the subconscious biases existing in us all. Obama will always be the first African American President of the United States. His place in history is assured. I find his loss of hope somewhat sad, because I wholeheartedly believe he has the following, support and capabilities to go even further in creating lasting change.