I don’t often read biographies, and I almost never read memoirs, but I made an exception for Barack Obama. His presidential memoir, A Promised Land, covers his early life and career through the first two years of his presidency, up to the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s over seven hundred pages long, and this is just Volume 1. But A Promised Land is much more than just a chronological retelling of events.
A Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Crown, New York 2020
Whether you’re interested in politics, history, civil rights, leadership, management, psychology, or the minutiae of campaigning, you’ll find plenty to interest you. It is a long book, and I did skim through some parts of it, mainly the historical background of certain events I wasn’t all that interested in. Despite its length though, A Promised Land is well-paced and does not drag. Obama is a talented writer.
The theme I found most striking throughout this book is Obama’s desire and his ability to bridge divisions – divisions within his Cabinet, the country, and most importantly within himself. He doesn’t always succeed, and he’s often met with obstruction, but this is the impulse that runs through his life.
Race and Identity
The basic facts of Barack Obama’s background are well known by now: the only son of a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya who was born and grew up in Hawaii and lived for several years in Indonesia.
In the early chapters of the book, Obama openly discusses his struggles as a young man to integrate the contradictory facets of his background and identity into a whole, balanced person:
“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.” [p. 9]
He started reading and journaling, first as a high school student and continuing through his time at Occidental College and Columbia University. He became inspired by social movements and leaders like Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. King while trying to figure out, like many young people, how to make a difference in the world, how to marry his ideals to the practical realities of work and life. But he also somehow learned to question his own assumptions and to be wary of the revolutionary fervor of some of his fellow students.
“Certainly that was true when it came to questions of race. I experienced my fair share of racial slights and could see all too well the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow anytime I walked through Harlem or parts of the Bronx. But, by dint of biography, I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people were irredeemably racist.” [p. 13]
Obama fully recognized how often America fell short of its ideals: the horrific injustice of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, “the blundering exercise of military power and the rapaciousness of multinationals.” Yet like many leaders before him, especially Black leaders, Obama fell in love with the ideals and the promise of America, with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
They define, he says, “an America that could explain me.”
Power and Impact
I think Obama’s ability to integrate the contradictory parts of his identity is the key to understanding his political vision too.
It’s clear that he sees parallels between the divisions within himself and the divisions within the country. As he strived to reconcile his internal contradictions, he also envisioned a different kind of politics for the country, a politics that could bridge the gaps of race and class, that could reach across the urban-rural divide. This vision runs through his entire political career and I think it inspired millions and millions of Americans. It inspires me.
He seeks power to enact change, and yet at every step in his journey, he is confronted with the limits of power.
After graduation he worked as a community organizer in Chicago for a couple of years. He says this experience got him out of his own head and served to ground his politics in a connection to the problems of ordinary working people.
But he soon became frustrated by the slow pace and limited impact he was able to achieve as an organizer:
“On every issue, it seemed, we kept bumping up against somebody – a politician, a bureaucrat, some distant CEO – who had the power to make things better but didn’t. And when we did get concessions from them, it was most often too little, too late. The power to shape budgets and guide policy is what we needed, and that power lay elsewhere.” [p. 16]
“Elsewhere” at first meant the state capital, Springfield, Illinois. Obama launched his political career winning election as a state senator. Democrats were the minority party in the Illinois legislature and even as a senator his achievements were limited to whatever concessions he could wring from the Republican majority. Moreover, to address some of the structural changes needed to really help people, for example with health care, Obama concluded that he needed to “speak to and for the widest possible audience.” That meant seeking a state-wide office: a seat in the US Senate.
Obama won his US Senate seat in 2004, but in that year George W. Bush also won re-election as President and the Republicans retained control of the House and the Senate. Here too Obama found himself in the minority party with only marginal influence. After witnessing the devastation caused by the US invasion of Iraq and the destruction along the Gulf coast caused by Hurricane Katrina, Obama again grew impatient with the slow pace of change. All this motivated his long shot run for the Presidency in 2008.
Winning the 2008 election gave Obama the greatest opportunity to implement his political vision, but even the President of the United States is constrained – by the checks and balances of the US Constitution, by the decisions of his predecessors, and in his case by the utter intransigence of the Republican Party:
“… who would deploy with impressive discipline for the next eight years, a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.” [p. 258]
Despite these constraints, his legislative achievements during his first two years as president were staggering, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Repeal Act, plus signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
(Compare all this to Trump’s signature legislative accomplishment, passed when Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress: a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited the rich.)
After the rout of the 2010 mid-term elections, when Democrats lost their majority in the House, Obama’s power became even more constrained, and he began using executive orders more frequently to get things done. I presume he’ll cover this in Volume 2.
If he’s frustrated by all this, he doesn’t write about it with bitterness, though he does have a few choice words about some of his opponents, like Mitch McConnell:
“But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness – all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.” [p. 245-6]
And Lyndsey Graham:
“You know how in the spy thriller or the heist movie you’re introduced to the crew at the beginning … Lindsey’s the guy who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” [p. 505]
Obama’s ability to hold and to reconcile conflicting perspectives is also reflected in his leadership style. As he and many others have pointed out, the issues that reach the president’s desk are complex and messy. The easy stuff gets taken care of by cabinet secretaries or lower-level bureaucrats.
For presidents, making a decision usually comes down to weighing probabilities and uncertainties. Here, the decisions are rarely either/or and never satisfy everyone. With the ability to hold conflicting ideas in his head, Obama makes a point of considering all the available facts and evaluating the possible options.
He stresses the importance of having a good process for making decisions. For example, when deciding on implementing a set of “stress tests” for major banks during the 2009 financial crisis, he says:
“Just as important, I felt assured that we’d run a good process, that our team had looked at the problem from every conceivable angle, that no potential solution had been discarded out of hand, and that everyone involved – from the highest-ranking cabinet member to the most junior staffer in the room – had been given the chance to weigh in.” [p. 293]
Obama was often criticized for making decisions so slowly, such as sending more troops into Afghanistan. But he makes no apologies for this and I, for one, am grateful he took the time to consult, gather facts and consider a diversity of viewpoints. It might take longer but it leads to better decisions:
“But with a sound process – one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and principles – I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.” [p. 294]
This emphasis on process reminds me of Oxford professor Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader. Brown points out that so-called strong leaders who disdain experts, ignore facts, and “go with their gut” often make disastrous decisions.
Politics is Personal
A Promised Land is a deeply personal book. Obama is remarkably open about his inner struggles and self-doubts. In addition to detailing his effort to define himself as a young Black man, Obama also reveals the strains that his chosen career placed on his marriage and the burdens that fell on his wife Michelle. He questions his motivations for running for president:
“Why would I put her through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker – a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed-race?” [p. 71]
He worries also about the effect growing up in the White House and in the public eye will have on his daughters.
Yet when Michelle challenges him to explain why he needed to be President when there were plenty of qualified candidates in the race, Obama responds:
“I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fin in – they’ll see themselves differently too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.” [p. 77]
He was right. Obama changed the trajectory, bent the arc of history, for Black Americans and for Hispanics. And for girls and women too. And maybe even for middle-aged white guys like me.
Was it a permanent change? After all, the country elected Donald Trump too.
A Black man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected US President, not once but twice. America did that. We did that. Nothing can ever take that away, not even the election of Donald Trump.
I find that inspiring and hopeful for the country.