Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign had the atmosphere of a social movement. In his memoir A Promised Land, the forty-fourth president of the United States says he found inspiration in the early suffragists, labor organizers, Gandhi, Lech Wałęsa, and the African National Congress; in the civil rights movement of Dr. King, John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer; and in the values of Ann Dunham, his mother, an anthropologist. The radical expectations of many followed President Obama to Washington, supported by the assumption that his being black was in itself an expression of profound change.
Obama observes that his political education had “inoculated” him against “revolutionary formulas.” He came to public service through community activism. After university, he worked as an organizer in the mid-1980s in Chicago with “a group of churches that were trying to stabilize communities racked by steel plant closures.” This approach to social change was not going to be enough for him, “a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision.” His rise within the Democratic Party he finds hard to explain, the conjunction of ambition, nerve, other peoples’ mistakes, timing, opportunity, self-doubt, deeper self-belief. The Illinois state senate led to the US Senate and to his defining moment as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Along the way he, like Lincoln, lost a congressional race:
I suppose there are useful lessons to draw from that first campaign [for the state senate in 1996]. I learned to respect the nuts and bolts of politics, the attention to detail required, the daily grind that might prove the difference between winning and losing. It confirmed, too, what I already knew about myself: that whatever preferences I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose.
He tells us when a passing feeling of helplessness or bitterness gets to him, not unrelated to wondering if he is doing the right thing in the middle of the relentless multitasking the presidency demanded of him. The transparency is completely charming, as if the advantage of being a total square, i.e., the most famous man in the world, is that you can tell everyone anything, or anyone everything, or seem to have. Every prince wears a mask:
I was almost forty [after losing the primary for a congressional seat in 2000], broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always banked on, had been used up on a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.
He had the wings for the journey to the White House. Victorious as many African-Americans felt in 2008, they didn’t mind laughing out loud that it took an economic meltdown to put the first black man in the Oval Office. Already as president-elect, Obama was working to save the banking system and financial markets and reform the credit card industry: “We were the fire department.” He got little thanks for it, certainly not from the “high rollers in wood-paneled boardrooms” whom he bailed out or the federal government couldn’t go after because of various financial regulations: “Their obliviousness drove me nuts.” For not seizing the moment to subdue financial institutions or to assert federal power over corporations, to bring about a day of reckoning, he lost the Zuccotti Park wing of “Yes We Can”:
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.
On the global stage, President Obama projected the image that intelligence had taken over United States affairs, and that good governance could happen if only his opponents, foreign and domestic, would give peace a chance. As impatient as he’d been to see if he could get there, he discovered once installed that he had a talent for the long game. It made compromise in both foreign and domestic initiatives less onerous for him to accept than congressional Democrats and some in his administration maybe would have wanted: “Now that they were in control, they were in no mood to see me offer concessions to their former tormentors.” He would deliberate for so long over his options in Syria, for instance, that he appeared to do nothing. That disaster was only just beginning to unfold in his first term, but he recognized the “limited influence” of the US:
In the conduct of foreign policy, I had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of the previous administration and the contingencies of the moment; and just because I couldn’t in every instance elevate our human rights agenda over other considerations didn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do what I could, when I could, to advance what I considered to be America’s highest values.
When he bowed to the emperor and empress of Japan, he was denounced by conservatives back home for being disrespectful to the memory of World War II veterans: “I wondered when exactly such a sizable portion of the American Right had become so frightened and insecure that they’d completely lost their minds.” His visits to the war wounded at Walter Reed and Bethesda military hospitals brought to his mind Lincoln wandering through infirmaries during the Civil War. He felt his responsibilities so keenly—winding down combat operations in Iraq, stepping up a “necessary and just” US engagement in Afghanistan as post–September 11 policy.
Obama as president had his Quiet American’s faith in US exceptionalism:
This much was true, though: At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the United States could legitimately claim that the international order we had forged and the principles we had promoted—a Pax Americana—had helped bring about a world in which billions of people were freer, more secure, and more prosperous than before.
At the same time, he was not threatened by decolonization. Other countries remained respectful of American power, he observes, but the West was no longer the center for them. Former colonies and once-subjugated countries considered themselves the equals of their former occupiers. Moreover, China’s economic success had made “authoritarian capitalism” a “plausible alternative” to Western liberalism in the minds of young people throughout the developing world. The American way had to become desirable again, a renewed dream. Obama speaks of somehow saving and draining of hate the young people in troubled places recruited to terrorism. He saw closing the military prison at Guantánamo Bay as an important step in fixing America’s counterterrorism efforts, even if he could not manage to do so.
Obama mistrusted the “easy answers.” The surprises and tough decisions all came in waves, he says: the financial crisis, the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, the drone strikes against al-Qaeda, having to deploy more battalions in Afghanistan, having to contain the H1N1 pandemic that killed more than 12,000 Americans in 2010 or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico the same year. In domestic affairs, the most useful example for him was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office when the US was gripped by the Great Depression of the 1930s, saved the system, and engineered a return to “pre-crisis normalcy”:
FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t. I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in; and whether, having ceded the political narrative to my critics, I was going to be able to wrest it back.
The story of his legislative and policy initiatives that Obama tells in A Promised Land is one of aiming high, issue after issue, and settling for what he could get from the destructive partisan politics he was dealt. He can feel like the fisherman in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, with the sharks gnawing while he tries to get his catch to shore. Obama’s doubts about the wisdom of his circumspection and his pursuit of cooperation with congressional Republicans have a lot to do with how he looks back on his first term:
I confess that there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I’ve reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth when I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.
He thinks sadly of the “awful cost” of incremental change. “Not a single House Republican would even consider cosponsoring climate legislation.” For some, a verdict has already settled over Obama’s stewardship of the Republic: he was a conscientious caretaker, but no fire-eater. Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton fought for a national health plan, but Obama actually passed the legislation, and though not what everyone wanted, Obamacare is not incremental change. It made an immediate difference to millions, while the population still in need of coverage crosses racial lines. This touches on a problem of perception of failure among some white Americans, which has to do with the face of need being a black face, historically, and therefore the resistance, conscious and unconscious, to having to be counted among the deprived, a nonwhite category.
Among the qualities the nation misses in Barack Obama is his voice, his civility of tone. He is very literary, remembering his youthful discoveries of Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks, Michel Foucault and Virginia Woolf, John le Carré and Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Persian poet Sa’adi. “On any given day, under the high dome of the capitol, you’d see a cross section of America on full display, a Carl Sandburg poem come to life.” Obama probably knows a great deal of American political philosophy. He has the gift of being able to invest his written words with the thrum of the spoken, making it possible for him to appeal to a broad audience without strain.
A Promised Land is long, serving several purposes. Here is this big souvenir of the first black presidency. Every day brought reminders of how privileged he and his staff were “to be playing a part in writing history.” Obama takes you all over the White House, never forgetting where he was:
Although it’s not large, the Cabinet Room of the White House is stately, with a rich red carpet adorned with gold stars, and cream-colored walls with eagle-shaped sconces. On the north side of the room, marble busts of Washington and Franklin, sculpted in the classical style, gaze out from nooks on either side of a fireplace. At the center of the room sits an oval table made of gleaming mahogany and surrounded by twenty leather chairs, a small brass plaque affixed to the back of each one signifying where the president, the vice president, and various cabinet members should sit. It’s a place for sober deliberation, built to accommodate the weight of history.
The residence, the Oval Office, the colonnade where he was most able to be alone with his thoughts, Air Force One, the Situation Room:
Thanks to the movies, I’d always imagined the Sit Room as a cavernous, futuristic space, ringed by ceiling-high screens full of high-resolution satellite and radar images and teeming with smartly dressed personnel manning banks of state-of-the-art gizmos and gadgets.
Instead, he found a nondescript conference room on the first floor of the West Wing. “But make no mistake, it was weird,” he says of his new circumstances.
Obama’s memoir is also a letter of thanks to friends, classmates, co-workers, campaign staff, volunteers, White House staff, Secret Service, cabinet, elected officials, generals, colleagues. He doesn’t merely mention people, he describes them, presents everyone he had dealings with in entertaining or insightful character sketches. It suggests that his ability to respond to American variousness is in part a reflection of his literary imagination. During that first presidential campaign, he began to see himself as a vessel, a conduit for the stories of others. He says his speeches became less about his positions and more a chronicle of the voices he heard. (It is possible to lose count after fifteen of how many times Obama says “folks.”) He tells us that he does not believe in destiny, but he accepts that you don’t choose the time, it chooses you: “The country was desperate for a new voice.”
The understanding presence throughout Obama’s narrative is the First Lady. Before his 2004 US Senate campaign, she told him, “This is it, Barack. One last time. But don’t expect me to do any campaigning. In fact, you shouldn’t even count on my vote.” He says she is the person most able to tell him what’s what, to get him to stay real. Michelle Robinson Obama revealed in her autobiography, Becoming (2018), the price in self-suppression she paid to do her duty with such good grace. The Obamas married in 1992 and had two daughters whom the press left alone, “an act of basic decency that I deeply appreciated,” the former president notes. The girls grew up lovely, as black grandmothers used to say, in the White House, playing like Caroline Kennedy inside the Resolute desk.
Dreams from My Father (1995) is Obama’s coming-of-age memoir; The Audacity of Hope (2006) his campaign manifesto. A Promised Land is political history, his detailed record of his administration’s progress. He is modest. If he praises a speech, it will be one that someone else wrote. He stresses the importance of team effort and consultation, and shares with us seemingly every step of trying to get a piece of legislation passed, mindful of the people who have invested time, emotion, and thought into it:
That was another lesson the presidency was teaching me: Sometimes it didn’t matter how good your process was. Sometimes you were just screwed, and the best you could do was have a stiff drink—and light up a cigarette.
He laughs at the carefully rationed smokes he permitted himself in the White House colonnade, hidden from his daughters. Then he had to quit and furtively take up nicotine gum.
It was always Moral Monday in Obama City. Not a whiff of corruption, during all those years, from the basketball-playing policy wonk working on the reduction and someday elimination of nuclear weapons. The habitually powerful in their inherited insolence resented the changed air blowing from Obama’s Oval Office. It was bad enough that a black man was in charge of the money and of federal patronage. His upbringing with his white mother and white grandparents made it impossible for him to believe that “white people were irremediably racist.” Yet he knows that women and people of color often have the goalposts moved on them at a critical point in the game.
In 2009 Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a heated exchange with a white police officer responding to a breaking and entering call from a neighbor of Gates’s. Obama said in passing that the police had “acted stupidly.” Police unions and enough of white America exploded with indignation, leading to the “damage control” of the “Beer Summit” in the White House garden between Gates and the arresting officer, with Obama in shirtsleeves, mediating:
It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life. It seemed to tap into some of the deepest undercurrents of our nation’s psyche, touching on the rawest of nerves, perhaps because it reminded all of us, Black and white alike, that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people, and that who controlled legally sanctioned violence, how it was wielded and against whom, still mattered in the recesses of our tribal minds much more than we cared to admit.
It is not a surprise that a young working-class white police officer handcuffed a black tenured professor who was giving him a tongue-lashing he hadn’t the wit to deal with. But it is still a surprise that the polls said “the Gates affair caused a huge drop in my support among white voters, bigger than would come from any single event during the eight years of my presidency. It was support that I’d never completely get back.” To try to prove a black president could be the president of everyone, Obama was obliged to exhibit the restraint of a constitutional monarch.
The murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown wait for Obama’s second volume, but he saw in his first presidential campaign signals of the moral collapse to come. For starters, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s “incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy.” He is disdainful of the hypocrisy of the Republicans who complained about falling standards in society but shrugged off Palin’s ignorance. She had good instincts and therefore didn’t need to have basic knowledge about government or foreign policy.
Obama won the election; the Tea Party got going by throwing itself into opposition to his health care proposals. Its members heckled representatives, disrupted meetings. Obama points out that there was nothing new in the Tea Party manifesto. It was anti-taxation, depicting federal government as having been taken over by selfish liberal elites. Obama also notes that the Tea Party was not a spontaneous, grassroots movement but had been constructed initially by Americans for Prosperity, an organization bankrolled by the Koch brothers. However, it quickly came to represent what Obama calls a populist surge within the Republican Party. He says that a part of him understood the anger of white workers at the stagnation they’d experienced for decades, the feeling that things were being done for other groups while they were neglected. He even says that he had to admire the speed with which the Tea Party mobilized, but he was not prepared for the violence of the rhetoric unleashed against him, a Muslim born in Kenya, it was claimed.
Then came his first White House Press Corps dinner. He and the First Lady “motorcaded” over to the Washington Hilton, where the president paid Trump back for “birtherism,” the race baiting that Trump and Murdoch-shaped news businesses exploited for ratings. The “conspiratorial musings” about Obama’s birth certificate were white fantasies of being able to say who belongs, who is American:
The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile. I couldn’t begin to guess what went through his mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables.
Trump’s dangerous obsession with wiping out all evidence of Obama’s presidency may not have started at a black-tie dinner, but his outer-borough vengefulness for being laughed at by suave, black, thin Obama will never go away:
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.
The partisan affiliation that would blot out everything was part of a darker reality, the repetitive, angry rituals—not about who belongs, but to whom it all belongs. The forces gathering to invalidate the social compact rather than see it expand operated with a license not displayed so openly in half a century:
Was Václav Havel correct in suggesting that by raising expectations, I was doomed to disappoint them? Was it possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were and always would be nothing more than a pretense, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the primal urges that really moved us, so that no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course, an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?
The First Lady was wise: when others go low, we go high.
Biden’s arrival is rescue. As with Obama, a Democratic administration steps in after Republican Party rule-by- deregulation has made a mess. Biden’s popularity says that as the pandemic continues, after chaos-by-Twitter, enough people want sobriety and managerial competence.
The storming of the Capitol has shaken up our perspective. Even when we said we knew it was there, we hadn’t seen it like this, the leviathan in the swirling waters. Obama was correct in the calm of his government, for all the obstruction and frustrations he had to deal with. The only way to defend democracy is to trust in it, as a well-regulated power that can resist the potency that Crazy has over the American imagination at the moment. Millions voted for the autocrat-envious man in the carnival mirror, the fantasist and his enablers who through indifference and venality sent so many of them to hospital emergency rooms. “I remembered what the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said about politics during the Soviet era, that ‘the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of State,’” Obama says.
A presidential campaign may not be, after all, a social movement, but it does ask us to make decisions. Obama’s place as chief executive was to be at the center of our politics, and then above them, as commander in chief, in the duties of the office. “I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.” Nothing changed, but he changed everything, representing, as he does, more than anyone or anything on the planet at the moment what conservatives despise most: the prestige of liberal ideas in human history. Biden has something like a mandate to make sense of our direction, even if “pre-crisis normalcy” isn’t coming back. He is there because Horatius kept the bridge. Obama was not just a caretaker.
People in Germany find the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel so reassuring they do not want her to retire next year. He finds a lesson for America in her straightforwardness:
Her stolid appearance reflected her no-nonsense, analytical sensibility. She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess 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.
As the first black president Obama governed under the old, unspoken pressure that can still freeze a black student at a predominantly white school: one must be twice as good in order to break even. For a leader who had no leeway, he found a way to make a way out of no way, as Dr. King once said black people could always do.