A PROMISED LAND
By Barack Obama
Former U.S. president Barack Obama wants you to know that he still believes in America.
Believing in America, he also believes in such patriotic American staples as democracy, opportunity, good government, and the rule of the law.
You can expect platitudes from a politician, but in the case of the first volume of Obama’s White House memoirs, A Promised Land, they come with a greater sense of urgency. Not just because he was succeeded by someone openly opposed to all of those core beliefs and values, someone enabled by a Republican wrecking crew whose sole political purpose has become the dismantling of the state, but because across the world there is a growing public disillusionment with democracy, putting that form of government at real risk.
As you should also expect from a book like this, Obama is very much concerned with presenting his legacy in the best possible light. What this means is that while admitting he often fell short in achieving his goals when it came to fighting the good fight against obstructionist Republicans for things like healthcare reform and environmental protection, this was largely due to the real limits his power had in “the world as it is.”
Time and again, but especially when faced with falling poll numbers, he upbraids himself for becoming “trapped in my own high-mindedness” and not being able to communicate just how good a job he was really doing. “We’re on the right side of this stuff,” he complains to his closest political confidant David Axelrod while working on the Affordable Care Act. “We just have to explain it better to voters.”
But this doesn’t sound right. Obama was a brilliant communicator. The problem he faced was an electorate that had self-selected into different realities. This is brought home to him by the resiliency of the “birther” claims about his not being born in the United States. That so many people (still) believe this canard is not due to any failure in communication. The birthers believe in alternative facts.
As the author of two previous memoirs, Obama is a practised, observant writer with an important story to tell. One thing you should not expect, however, are any great revelations, inside scoops, or dramatic fireworks. “No-drama Obama” doesn’t roll that way. Still, you don’t have to read far between the lines to pick up what he really thinks of some of the personalities he had to deal with. One can tell that while in office he had genuine respect for German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, but thought French president Nicolas Sarkozy a lightweight and Senator Lindsay Graham a weasel.
Stephen Harper, by the way, is only mentioned once in passing. This country did not seem to occupy much, if any, of Obama’s attention.
The story concludes here with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the figure of Donald Trump as a sinister shadow waiting in the wings, trafficking in a currency of spectacle and conspiracy theory that “seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day.” Obama says he could feel where this was going: “I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.”
Whether in conscious response to this or not, Obama presents himself throughout as the anti-Trump: a family man, self-reflective, empathetic, thick-skinned, and in love with the work of being president while not caring for the pomp and pageantry a bit.
Most of all, however, he describes himself as a believer in “a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone.” At the end of the book, describing his address to a college graduation class, he realizes that as a young man “I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true.”
He’d soon have plenty of reasons for doubt.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 17 2020.