As a work of political literature A Promised Land is impressive. Obama is a gifted writer. He can turn a phrase, tell a story and break down an argument. As he goes down the policy rabbit hole he manages to keep the reader engaged without condescension. The writing can be vivid. Describing a trip to the Great Wall of China, he writes: “The day was cold, the wind cutting, the sun a dim watermark on the gray sky, and no one said much as we trudged up the steep stone ramparts that snaked along the mountain’s spine.” He depicts Hawaii as a place where “slicing through turquoise waves is a birthright”, and the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig as “roiling plumes [that] looked forceful, menacing, like emanations from hell”.
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
As I came to the end of this book I was bothered by which world leader Obama reminded me of. Not Medvedev for sure. Then I realised: it was David Cameron, whose recent memoir, also overlong, also packed with detailed accounts of tough policy choices, was also imbued with a rhetoric of hope. But lurking in the background of both, waiting to spoil the party in the end, is the place where hope went to die – Brexit for Cameron, Trump for Obama. In both cases, the climax of the story casts a shadow over the body of the tale. These memoirs feel too long partly because they are trying to put off what’s coming. And with Obama we still have another book to go.
The shift from an idealist committed to structural change to a pragmatist began almost as soon as Obama became president, with his appointment of a team of economic advisers closely tied to the banking institutions and neoliberal policies that had helped to bring about the financial crisis in the first place. The demobilization of the grassroots movement that had put him in the White House soon followed. Had that movement survived, it might have provided a counter to the right-wing (and often nakedly racist) populism of the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009 to combat Obama’s economic and healthcare initiatives.
There is a refreshing absence of the usual self-justification and self-delusions that mar most political memoirs, and a seemingly genuine willingness to admit that he writes with the benefit of hindsight: “if all this seems obvious to me now, it wasn’t at the time”, he says after a lengthy digression on the appeal of the Tea Party, the right-wing insurgency that helped inflict on him a painful defeat in the 2010 midterms. Though perhaps the funniest of his self-criticisms comes early on in the book, when talking of his struggles in the primary debates: “I was just plain wordy, and that was a problem,” he writes, which is a fitting reflection on a book that takes 230 pages to get its author into the White House.
But under all that hopey changey stuff, and where the long sections about wrangling policy through Congress really come into their own, is a superbly engaging study in realpolitik. He was famous for his windy rhetoric; but to get anything done in office required a steely political operator. Obama, the centrist dad’s centrist dad, is again and again confronted by the hard arithmetic of the caucus at home, and of tangled interests abroad. He really shows you how the sausage is made — and his cool, conscientious, covering-all-the-angles pragmatism, more than his optimism, is the real fascination in this book.
If there is a theme in this book, it is the political realities and trade-offs that have to be made in the process of governing. Obama is intensely aware of his own political and personal journey from youthful idealism to realpolitik. As the reader is brought into the decision-making process, we see a leader who painstakingly evaluates all possible scenarios and weighs both sides – characteristics often denounced by his critics.
Obama writes with verve and style. However, the book is a reminder of the dangers of messiahs in politics. His intelligence is matched by a trademark unwavering self-confidence that feeds an inability to see divergent views as anything other than error or bigotry. Obama is so tied up with his self-image as a world-historical figure moving America along the arc of progress that he doesn’t seem to see the role he played in stoking internal division.
It is evident that he sees the cataclysm of Trump that followed him as due in large part to a kind of racist backlash against his own historic presidency. But there’s more to it than that: it’s at least as much a popular reaction to a superior self-righteousness that characterises progressive elites. Sometimes you really can be too good for your own good.
Obama’s limpid prose, which shot him to fame in the mid-1990s with his precocious autobiography, Dreams From My Father, is alive and well in the way he describes his pre-presidential days, including his historic 2008 campaign. It is easy to see why Penguin Random House gave him and Michelle Obama a combined $65m — an advance to which none of his predecessors have come close. Once he reaches the White House, however, Obama’s storytelling arc hits a plateau. Some of the life drains from the writing.
Luckily, the author of Dreams from My Father — his lyrical 1995 account of his tangled mixed-race upbringing in Hawaii and Jakarta — has not lost his narrative touch. This memoir is beautifully written and disarmingly candid. There are few genuine revelations, but Obama expands on many of the personal and political themes that marked his presidency. His wife, Michelle, chafed at what they both saw as their “confinement” to the White House; Barack would occasionally get so frustrated that he would “up and take off”, prompting Secret Service agents to whisper his code name into their wrist mikes: “Renegade on the move.”
Off duty, the prosaic aridity of Obama’s legislative travails and diplomatic wrangling relaxes into poetry, as he remembers “wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights” or “watching baby Sasha laugh as I nibbled her feet” and, above all, “listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her head resting against my shoulder as she drifted off to sleep”. He is solemnly lyrical in his account of the permanently illuminated Oval Office, luminescent throughout the night “like a lighthouse’s rounded torch”. But he is even more tenderly appreciative of the seasonal flora in the White House gardens and there’s a Wordsworthian gravity in his exchanges with the elderly groundsmen, “the quiet priests of a good and solemn order”.
Obama’s is a beautifully written memoir, in fact his third (after Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope) and covers his childhood through to the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, which is written up like a thriller. It’s not a proper work of history, as such, but it is full of insights into the state of American society, and in particular its problems with race. In fact, though the competition is not strong, it’s probably the best volume of autobiography from a former president in modern times. As a reminder of a face of America it is invaluable.
Anyone who disagrees with Barack Obama is, in his view, either evil or an idiot. Mitch McConnell, chief of the senate Republicans, was shameless; John Boehner, head of the House Republicans, was a coward. Sarah Palin knew nothing: what had she even done before joining a presidential ticket – two years as a governor? (Never mind that Obama was only four years a senator). You might think the world’s greatest centrist dad would have a kind word for moderates, but they get it in the neck, too. When squeezing the roughly $800 billion Recovery Act through the Senate, says Obama, the liberal Republican Arlen Specter, who had suffered two bouts of cancer, “insisted that $10 billion… go to the National Institutes of Health” as the price of his vote. What a monster!... Personally, I look back on him now as quite a conservative president (except on abortion and sexual politics) who, by his own account, avoided radical structural change to the US economy because it would have required “a violence to the social order”. Were he British, he might have been a Tory MP. At times he’s almost an Alan Partridge. The author doesn’t end every anecdote with “needless to say, I had the last laugh”, but he comes too close for comfort.
To read Barack Obama’s autobiography in the last, snarling days of Donald Trump is to stare into an abyss between two opposite ends of humanity, and wonder once again at how the same country came to choose two such disparate men.
Somewhere at the top of a long list of contrasts is their grasp of language and facts. On the eve of the book’s publication, Trump has been emitting staccato tweets about winning an election he has decisively lost, a claim formally labelled within 10 minutes as disinformation. At the other end of the scale, Obama’s A Promised Land is 701 pages of elegantly written narrative, contemplation and introspection, in which he frequently burrows down into his own motivations...
Nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt has written a memoir that covers his years in office; this one contains some inevitable moments of reputation-burnishing and legacy-shaping, though the narrative hews so closely to Obama’s own discursive habits of thought that any victories he depicts feel both hard-won and tenuous. An adverb he likes to use is “still” — placed at the beginning of a sentence, to qualify and counter whatever he said just before. Another favorite is “maybe,” as he reflects on alternatives to what happened, offering frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself. He addresses the book to the “next generation,” to young people who seek to “remake the world,” but the story he tells is less about unbridled possibility and more about the forces that inhibit it.
Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand... Here, then, is an overwhelmingly decent man giving an honest account of himself. It is now normal to preface any praise of a public figure with the word “flawed,” but who isn’t flawed? As a convention it feels like an ungracious hedge, a churlish reluctance to commend the powerful or famous no matter how well deserved. The story will continue in the second volume, but Barack Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.