Book Party

The examined life of Barack Obama

In his memoir, Obama is both the subject and the judge
Wayne Brezinka for The Washington Post

I’ve long been imagining Barack Obama’s presidential memoir. Would it be an extension of the life and mind found in “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” part three of a most introspective trilogy? Would it see itself in conversation — or competition — with the memoirs and reflections of presidents past? Or might it somehow complement Michelle Obama’s blockbuster 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” on the struggle to articulate one’s purpose while shifting from private to public life?

Carlos Lozada @CarlosLozadaWP is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2019.

The answer is yes. Obama’s lengthy and still partial account of his presidency is some version of all of these books; its strength, like that of its author, is in the ability to be many things to many people.

But the deeper one wades through it, the clearer it becomes that “A Promised Land” is less a personal memoir than an unusual sort of history, one recounted by the man at the center of it, a man who seems always to be observing himself in action, always wondering if he is guiding the currents or driven by them. There is chronology here, from childhood to schooling to community organizing to law to marriage to politics and finally to the White House, and then from financial crisis to health-care battles, from endless war in distant lands to an endless spill at the bottom of the ocean. Yet Obama himself remains at a distance, immersed more in thought than action, always on the lookout for contradictions and symbolism, unveiling himself only in select moments. If there is a narrative here, it concerns what happens inside the writer’s own head.

And so the book’s main revelation concerns that, too. Obama says he wrote “A Promised Land” to invite young people “to once again remake the world, and to bring about . . . an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.” Implicit in such an invitation is an admission of his failure to bring about that alignment in his time. Part of it is due to obstructionism by congressional Republicans, who turned opposition to the first Black president from a means of politics to its end. Part of it stems from the impossible expectations with which Obama imbued his politics and his speeches, which, as he puts it, “tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for — a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility.” Yet it is also a function of Obama’s innate caution, of his skepticism — hopeful slogans notwithstanding — of dramatic change.

In domestic policy and foreign affairs, in debates over culture and race, Obama splits differences, clings to the middle ground and trusts in process as much as principle. The first few months of his presidency “revealed a basic strand of my political character,” he writes. It turns out he is not a “revolutionary soul” but a reformist one, “conservative in temperament if not in vision.” Behind those dreams, the audacity and all that promise is a stubborn streak of moderation.

Obama says he wants to give readers “a sense of what it’s like to be the president . . . to pull back the curtain” on the day-to-day, and he succeeds in small and big ways. Readers witness a 20-minute tutorial he receives on proper military salute etiquette (“Elbow a little farther out, sir. . . . Fingers tighter, sir”), learn Obama’s tips for surviving international summits (“You sit there, fighting off jet lag and doing your best to look interested”) and brace themselves when the president asks King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia how he keeps up with a dozen wives. (His Majesty’s answer: “Very badly. . . . It’s more complicated than Middle East politics.”) And I’ll never forget his first night in the White House when, not knowing what else to do, he walked around turning off lights before finally going to bed. Such a dad move.

But most illuminating is why Obama, after winning his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, aspired to the presidency at all. “God, Barack . . . when is it going to be enough?” Michelle Obama reproaches early on. His own introspection is hardly more charitable. “Was it just vanity?” he wonders. “Or perhaps something darker — a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service?” He eventually reached a series of justifications: to inspire a new kind of politics; to bridge the country’s divides; and to expand the horizons of young people of color who would be inspired to see him take the oath.

Such self-aware symbolism, so powerful in the emotion of a historic campaign, can become a hindrance once poetry gives way to prose. “They had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams,” he writes. “I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them.” Black activists and intellectuals — never sure he would win, anyway — wanted him to take “the most uncompromising positions” on issues such as affirmative action and reparations, Obama recalls. And he knows he disappointed many when he did not mete out “Old Testament justice,” as one senior official described it, in response to bankers’ misdeeds in the mortgage crisis. “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,” Obama writes.

But the wondering does not last long. If he had to do it all over again, “I can’t say I would make different choices,” he decides. Returning to a state of “pre-crisis normalcy” would be good enough.

This practicality recurs throughout “A Promised Land.” When an adviser suggests that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright should not deliver a public invocation at his 2008 campaign kickoff, Obama is frustrated by the need to soften blunt racial truths for White audiences, but he concludes that “as a matter of practical politics” the adviser was right. During the push for heath-care reform, he wants to get tough on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries but decides that, “as a practical matter,” a conciliatory approach is best. Same when he appeases some conservative Democrats by agreeing to strip the public option out of the health-care proposal. “It wasn’t the first time I’d chosen practicality over pique,” he confides.

Obama tends to see all sides of everything. On foreign policy, he admits that he was never quite the “starry-eyed idealist” he seemed during the presidential campaign and that he owed as much to the realist worldview, believing in restraint, wary of unforeseen consequences, cognizant of the limits of America’s ability to remake the world. The splits among his foreign policy team — young idealists such as Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, cautious veterans such as Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton — reflected Obama’s own ambivalence. On the Arab Spring, for instance, “I shared both the hopes of younger advisors and the fears of my older ones,” he writes.

In this book, you often see Obama talking himself into moderation, even though the very reason he’d left behind other roles — as a community organizer, lawyer, state senator and U.S. senator — was dissatisfaction with the limits they imposed on him. “My heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments . . . 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.”

But if you keep encountering the same discontent, the same restlessness, wherever you go, no matter the job, maybe it’s you. In “A Promised Land,” Obama’s on-the-other-handedness is his default setting. He worries about politicians redirecting White frustrations against racial minorities, yet he sympathizes with those frustrations. He understands the tea party anger, though he considers it misdirected. He affirms that the regulatory state that conservatives so decry has made American lives “a hell of a lot better,” then adds the obligatory caveat: “That’s not to say that every criticism of federal regulation was bogus.” It’s a tic of temperament but also of design. As early as his college years, Obama cultivated the habit of questioning his assumptions, which he thinks “inoculated” him against the revolutionary zeal of the Reagan-era left. The vaccination has lasted.

Obama writes with the knowledge and weight of history, an occupational hazard of the presidency (though evidently not for all presidents). He constantly references other presidents — by my count, at least 20 of them appear in “A Promised Land” — pondering how Abraham Lincoln consoled so many wounded soldiers or how Franklin Roosevelt explained his policies during the Depression.

He is a talented writer — and not just for a politician — but he overdoes the history lessons at times. Obama introduces virtually every decision or conflict with some dutiful background or policy overview, a habit that can make for tedious reading. “Though I hadn’t majored in economics, I was familiar enough with John Maynard Keynes, one of the giants of modern economics,” he explains in a discussion of the stimulus debates. “Since Marbury v. Madison . . .” he intones when describing Supreme Court appointments. “Since the time of the czars, historians had noted . . .” he lectures when musing on Russia’s fatalism. I normally take notes while I read; here, I wanted to grab a red pen and slash out lines. For Obama, just about every moment is a teachable one.

He also gives detailed shout-outs to countless aides and staffers — an admirable quality in a manager, less so in the author of a 751-page book. He boasts that his first presidential campaign sought to “challenge the Washington playbook and tell hard truths,” sentiments that are themselves straight out of the Washington playbook. (It’s the audacity of trope.) And he can overapply the writerly gloss, as when he looks back on Election Day in 2008: “Across the country millions of strangers step behind a black curtain to register their policy preferences and private instincts, as some mysterious collective alchemy determines the country’s fate — and your own.” (Alternatively: “People voted.”)

Obama’s erudition is most powerful not when he squeezes in more history but when he distills it. His recollection of a speech at West Point leads to a perfect, one-paragraph digression on the heroism and folly of America’s wars, whether the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam. “Glory and tragedy, courage and stupidity — one set of truths didn’t negate the other,” he writes simply. Just as he does not outright condemn American military action (he was, after all, a president who personally approved drone strikes against terrorist targets), neither does he decry America as a land of prejudice, beyond redemption. “The conviction that racism wasn’t inevitable may also explain my willingness to defend the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become,” he recalls.

And here we may get to the heart not just of the American idea but of Obama’s idea, too. “Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals?” he asks in his preface. It is the question that infuses the book and the country it describes, just as closing the gap between ideal and reality — even simply acknowledging it can suffice sometimes — animates the man and his life.

Obama meant to write a single-volume memoir of his presidency, and I wish he had. “A Promised Land” ends in the aftermath of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, with so much still left to revisit and reconsider. Syria and the red line. Trayvon Martin, Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. Newtown and Charleston. The brutal 2016 campaign, Russian election interference, and the shock of the four years since Obama left office.

I don’t want to wait to learn how Obama saw all this at the time or how he sees it now. He connects Trump’s appeal to his own presidency — “for millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety” — but Trump is not the focus of this book, nor should he be. The 45th president appears largely by implication and by contrast, as when Obama regards Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential nomination as a forerunner of the forces overtaking the Republican Party, and when he details the process for meetings and policy rollouts in his administration. “Every document issued was fact-checked, every person who showed up for a meeting was vetted, every event was planned to the minute, and every policy announcement was carefully scrubbed to make sure it was achievable,” he writes. Today, that reads like a dispatch from a different world.

Obama also revisits his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston, another call to create an America aligned with what is best in us. That night, he saw a country that was not red or blue, Black or White, but united. Once again, though, he looks back with ambivalence. “I’d intended it more as a statement of aspiration than a description of reality,” Obama now explains. “But it was an aspiration I believed in and a reality I strove for.”

Those two impulses — hope tempered by caution, caution streaked with hope — capture the promise of “A Promised Land.”

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