Book Review – A Promised Land by Barack Obama

In A Promised Land, the first volume of his highly anticipated presidential memoirs, Barack Obama provides a sweeping and vivid portrait of his life leading up to his entry into politics as an Illinois State Senator, and concluding in the midst of the third year of his presidency with Operation Neptune’s Spear, the mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Mercifully, the memoir spends very little time on his early life, a mistake often made by long-winded memoirists who tend to reflect on their early years with something approaching myopic nostalgia. Obama limits the story of his early years to just a few pages, a mere setup to a long-lingering questioning of his early and murky career motives and the true objective of his decisions during that time. He quickly moves to his decision to run for office, first in the Illinois state senate, then rapidly to the U.S. Senate, followed by his run for the presidency. All along the way, he seems surprisingly and somewhat comfortingly irresolute, a shocking admission for a career politician. He also reflects on how Washington changes a person, worrying about being drawn into the muck of politics:

I questioned what might happen to me the longer I stayed in Washington, the more embedded and comfortable I became. I saw now how it could happen—how the incrementalism and decorum, the endless positioning for the next election, and the groupthink of cable news panels all conspired to chip away at your best instincts and wear down your independence, until whatever you once believed was utterly lost.  

Throughout the book, Barack Obama shows some real insight into his thoughts on partisanship. When reflecting on one of the big scandals of his election run where, in regard to why working class voters tend to elect Republicans, he made the comment, “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He expresses a deep desire to recant that sentence and replace it with what he claims were his actual convictions as below:

“So it’s not surprising then that they get frustrated,” I would say in my revised version, “and they look to the traditions and way of life that have been constants in their lives, whether it’s their faith, or hunting, or blue-collar work, or more traditional notions of family and community. And when Republicans tell them we Democrats despise these things—or when we give these folks reason to believe that we do—then the best policies in the world don’t matter to them.”

Although this is obviously the rumination of a man who’s had a long opportunity to reflect on his mistakes, this comes across as earnest and believable. Obama’s writing seems to convey a true and pure desire to be a solid and equitable president who brings the country together. Although I had plenty of problems with his decisions and actions while he was president, when he reflects on many of those decisions, his earnestness is unambiguous and authentic, his motives plausibly benign.

I voted for Obama in 2008, only the second time I had ever voted for a Democrat for president. (Clinton in 1996 was the first.) I didn’t vote for Obama because of his policies, or because of his messaging, both of which I mostly disagreed with at the time. I also didn’t vote for him because of his charisma or his oratory skills, or because of his message of “Hope.” In fact, I didn’t even vote for him again in 2012, choosing to return to my right-leaning views and vote for Mitt Romney. In 2008, I liked John McCain, and I thought that McCain would make a much better president than Barack Obama. And yet, I voted for Obama for one reason: Sarah Palin. Obama himself shares some interesting insight into the drama within his own campaign on hearing the news that McCain had chosen Palin, starting with Joe Biden turning to him and saying, “Who the hell is Sarah Palin?” After a deep dive by his team into her biography and background, Obama says this:

But from the day McCain chose her and through the heights of Palin-mania, I felt certain the decision would not serve him well. For all of Palin’s performative gifts, a vice president’s most important qualification was the ability, if necessary, to assume the presidency. Given John’s age and history of melanoma, this wasn’t an idle concern. And what became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about. The financial system. The Supreme Court. The Russian invasion of Georgia. It didn’t matter what the topic was or what form the question took—the Alaskan governor appeared lost, stringing words together like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.

Although this is an easy thing to state after the fact, I have to believe and agree with his assessment. This is after all the primary reason why I chose to vote for the candidate I felt at the time was the worst of the two choices.

The book goes through the campaign and the race at a good pace, and he doesn’t dwell for too long on the election itself, getting quickly into the meat of his first year in office and the complex and challenging problems he inherited with a country and a world immersed in a financial crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Although both the House and the Senate were controlled by the Democrats, the Senate’s somewhat recent fixation and enthusiasm for the Filibuster made futile and exasperating his attempts at meaningful legislation. He spends a great deal of time reflecting on the confrontational nature of the Republican caucus toward any legislation put forth by his administration:

You might think that for a political party that had just suffered two cycles of resounding defeat, the GOP strategy of pugnacious, all-out obstruction would carry big risks. And during a time of genuine crisis, it sure wasn’t responsible.

But if, like McConnell and Boehner, your primary concern was clawing your way back to power, recent history suggested that such a strategy made sense. For all their talk about wanting politicians to get along, American voters rarely reward the opposition for cooperating with the governing party.

He goes into a short history lesson of the failures of both parties to win the house or senate via cooperation with the president through the last twenty years or so, a real but depressing look into how our government actually functions, with bitter infighting and iron-grip partisanship that puts personal power objectives well in front of the good of the country. Although he complains about this on numerous occasions, disappointingly he doesn’t cast blame on his own party for their own commensurate tactics with his Republican predecessors, nor does he offer a mediated solution to such deliberately damaging and abhorrent strategies. Admittedly, such a solution may be non-existent beyond congressional term-limits, which seems to be yet another idea that most Americans desire but will never be realized.  

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 caused by the sub-prime mortgage bubble was Obama’s immersion in fire, and it was a doozy, a real threat of an global economic depression that consumed the first part of his presidency. To this day, his administration’s handling of that crisis is still fiercely debated but, regardless of choices he could have made differently, there’s no doubt that his decisions did work in the end, and the U.S. banking industry certainly stabilized much quicker than any of its counterparts around the world. Obama certainly spends some time reflecting on what choices he could have made differently, as he states:

For many thoughtful critics, though, the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy is precisely the problem—a missed opportunity, if not a flat-out betrayal. According to this view, the financial crisis offered me a once-in-a-generation chance to reset the standards for normalcy, remaking not just the financial system but the American economy overall. If only I had broken up the big banks and sent some white-collar culprits to jail; if only I had put an end to outsized pay packages and Wall Street’s heads-I-win, tails-you-lose culture, then maybe today we’d have a more equitable system that served the interests of working families rather than a handful of billionaires.

I understand such frustrations. In many ways, I share them. To this day, I survey reports of America’s escalating inequality, its reduced upward mobility and still-stagnant wages, with all the consequent anger and distortions such trends stir in our democracy, and I wonder whether I should have been bolder in those early months, willing to exact more economic pain in the short term in pursuit of a permanently altered and more just economic order.

The thought nags at me. And yet even if it were possible for me to go back in time and get a do-over, I can’t say that I would make different choices.

I’m not qualified to judge the choices he made during this crisis—I’ll let the economists do that—but his insight into the thoughts that went behind those decisions is interesting, and his reasoning is certainly compelling.

Obama adds just a small amount of humor to the book, such as this statement about German Chancellor, Angela Merkel:

She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she’d been initially skeptical of me precisely because of my oratorical skills. I took no offense, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.

Obama also does a great job of describing and recognizing the bubble in which the American president sits, and his efforts to expand that bubble, from his visits to military hospitals or his attendance at the solemn return and transfer of American soldiers’ remains in an effort to understand the true cost of war, to his meeting with fifteen top American bankers during the financial crisis in an effort to understand their points of view, to his order to his Chief of Staff, Rahm, to have ten letters a day from citizens, good and bad, sent to him to read and reply to. He discusses his desire to take action on numerous occasions, desire that is tempered by his advisors, all of who’s expertise he respected and heeded. When talking about the Iranian revolts, the “Green Movement” of 2009 that posed one of the most significant challenges to the Islamic Republic in recent history, he stews over the merciless recriminations enacted by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Publicly, he gives a series of bland, bureaucratic statements like, “We continue to monitor the entire situation closely,” but privately he balked at such passive action:

As the violence escalated, so did my condemnation. Still, such a passive approach didn’t sit well with me—and not just because I had to listen to Republicans howl that I was coddling a murderous regime. I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt than I’d had as a senator—or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.

He also talks about the requisite tempering of his own ambitions and expectations with policy:

The presidency changes your time horizons. Rarely do your efforts bear fruit right away; the scale of most problems coming across your desk is too big for that, the factors at play too varied. You learn to measure progress in smaller steps—each of which may take months to accomplish, none of which merit much public notice—and to reconcile yourself to the knowledge that your ultimate goal, if ever achieved, may take a year or two or even a full term to realize. Nowhere is this truer than in the conduct of foreign policy.

Although he doesn’t spend much more time on that concept, I can only imagine the frustration that someone with the temperament to run for the office of President of the United States must feel as such chafing and arduous delays. For example, the book ends shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Obama talks about the intelligence that led to the discovery of OBL’s hideout in Pakistan. That information was brought to him six months before Operation Neptune’s Spear was executed, and it’s hard to imagine learning that information and then compartmentalizing it for six months while it’s confirmed and a mission is drawn up. I have a hard time waiting a week or two for something I’m personally excited about like a vacation or a holiday, and the effort to control a natural impulsiveness to immediately take action regarding something as dramatic as intelligence that might lead to the execution or capture of bin Laden seems Herculean.

Some of Obama’s candor and the bluntness with which he approaches his problems come through clearly in the opening of chapter 22:

It’s in the nature of politics, and certainly the presidency, to go through rough patches—times when, because of a boneheaded mistake, an unforeseen circumstance, a sound but unpopular decision, or a failure to communicate, the headlines turn sour and the public finds you wanting. Usually this lasts for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before the press loses interest in smacking you around, either because you fixed the problem, or you expressed contrition, or you chalked up a win, or something deemed more important pushes you off the front page.

If the rough patch lasts long enough though, you may find yourself in a dreaded situation in which problems compound, then congeal into a broader narrative about you and your presidency. The negative stories don’t let up, which leads to a drop in your popularity. Your political adversaries, smelling blood in the water, go after you harder, and allies aren’t as quick to defend you. The press starts digging for additional problems in your administration, to confirm the impression that you’re in political trouble. Until—like the daredevils and fools of old at Niagara Falls—you find yourself trapped in the proverbial barrel, tumbling through the crashing waters, bruised and disoriented, no longer sure which way is up, powerless to arrest your descent, waiting to hit bottom and hoping, without evidence, that you’ll survive the impact.

For most of my second year in office, we were in the barrel.

Obama’s team decides to arrest this descent into oblivion by pushing for Wall Street reform, culminating in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, legislation that should have been completely bi-partisan, but because of what Obama claims was Republican obstinance toward anything he supported, was only able to clear Congress when Mitch McConnell secretly conveyed to him that he would allow the act to barely pass, their obstructionism working well for them and in full force. Once again, Obama takes the opportunity to disparage, or at least to show his frustration with Republicans and their backroom deals and insincere approach to political gamesmanship without acknowledging that this is a massive problem on both sides of the aisle, the muck and the “swamp” that would culminate in the election of Donald Trump eight years later.

The book goes through the Deepwater Horizon incident, unrest in the middle east, the Arab Spring uprisings, our military intervention as part of the UN operation against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, and Obama’s interactions with Russian puppet president Medvedev and his string-puller Putin. All of this is well-written, insightful, and a fascinating look behind the scenes that kept me mostly spellbound. Obama is not shy about self-criticism and acknowledgement of his own failings and errors throughout those early years of his presidency, and the humility is refreshing, gratifying, and relatable. He even reflects on the meaning of any of the choices he might have made with this statement toward the conclusion of the book:

Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.

This type of reflection is sporadically inserted throughout the book, the genuine thoughts of a man who had a clear, altruistic vision of what he wanted to accomplish as president. Whether he succeeded with this mission is certainly up for debate, but his motives are unquestionably not.

A Promised Land was an enjoyable and enlightening read, and I highly recommend it. Although I was disappointed that it ended prior to what I feel was one of the biggest failures of his administration—Benghazi—I certainly understand the desire to end the book on a high note with the killing of Osama bin Laden. I’m eagerly looking forward to a similar level of authenticity and verisimilitude in volume two, hopefully sometime in the near future!

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