A Promised Land is a presidential memoir written by and for people who can’t get enough of former President Barack Obama. At 701 pages of densely packed text it promises to be the first of “two volumes” devoted to the 44th president’s recollections of his eight years in the White House that wound up in January 2017. But when I got to page 326, nearly halfway through the book, and realized that Obama had journeyed memoiristically only to the G20 economic summit in London in April 2009, less than three months into his first term, I started to wonder how many more volumes there would actually be in this series (three? four? five? seven?), especially at $65 million a pop, the former Democratic president’s record-breaking publisher’s advance for this first segment.
The Slow Trek to Abbottabad
A Promised Land somehow manages to plow through to May 2, 2011, the date of Al Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs after a successful raid on his compound in Pakistan. It’s an upbeat finale for the commander-in-chief, and also a wise literary strategy. Had Obama ended the book a few months earlier, say, at the end of 2010, he would have had to wind up on a less self-flattering note with the GOP’s sweep of the House in that year’s midterm elections and the mostly disastrous “Arab Spring” (enthusiastically supported by Obama) that led straight to the Benghazi debacle in 2012. But it’s a sluggish trek to Abbottabad: a page of prose for nearly every day Obama holds office during this period. Even the two photo inserts in the book seem ponderous and slow-going, with busy layouts and too many poorly cropped, poorly reproduced images crowded onto the page.
Obama, author of two previous memoirs (he recapitulates some of their content in A Promised Land), is actually a graceful, even poetic stylist, with a perceptive eye for the details of his surroundings: the White House’s West Colonnade walkway where he could feel “the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat” on his way to the Oval Office; the leathery, over-furnished interior of Air Force One; a 2009 visit to a housing bubble-wracked development in Arizona where “the few homes still occupied” looked like “lonely outposts against a backdrop of ravaged stillness.”
This is fine writing, and would that there were more of it—except that Obama prefers to use his talents for mellifluence in the service of endless, tedious explanation. As the book moves at molasses pace through various landmarks of his early presidency—the $800 billion economic stimulus package whose dubiously spent $100 billion slush fund for “clean” energy was a foretaste of the Green New Deal; the successful passage of Obamacare (tactfully omitting the procedural shenanigans devised by its House Democratic proponents to overcome a likely GOP filibuster in the Senate); the Dodd-Frank Act and its creation of the vastly powerful and constitutionally problematic Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB); the U.S. military intervention in Libya—Obama provides a lengthy pedantic lecture to accompany each episode. The Libyan airstrikes, for example, are preceded by six pages rehearsing the history of subsequently-assassinated strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year regime of “viciousness.” The Obamacare battle rates a four-page prelude summarizing a “quest for universal healthcare” beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s call for the establishment of a centralized national health service in 1912. When Supreme Court Justice David Souter retires from the bench in June 2009, enabling Obama to appoint Sonia Sotomayor as his successor, we get a mini-course in constitutional law beginning with Marbury vs. Madison, the 1803 Supreme Court decision that gave federal judges the power to strike down legislation. Obama visits India in November 2010, so be prepared for a two-page tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, including Gandhi’s “devotion to truth, and the power of nonviolent resistance to stir the conscience; his insistence on our common humanity and the essential oneness of all religions; and his belief in every society’s obligation, through its political, economic, and social arrangements, to recognize the equal worth and dignity of all people.” Platitude alert!
In all this verbiage, however, Obama cannot manage to bring to life any of the hundreds of people he recounts having encountered during this first two years-plus of his presidency. He is facile with physical descriptions. Carol Browner, his “White House climate czar” (an Obama-created position) is “[t]all and willowy, with an endearing mix of nervous energy and can-do enthusiasm.” Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is “[s]hort, trim, darkly handsome, hugely ambitious, and maniacally driven.” There are obligatory (one suspects) tributes to his pushed-to-drop-out campaign rival and quid-pro-quo-appointed secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Ted Kennedy, who endorsed Obama’s candidacy early on in 2008, receives a gushing encomium even more fulsome than Gandhi’s: “It was as if…Teddy recognized a familiar chord, and was reaching back to a time before his brothers’ assassinations, Vietnam, white backlash, riots, Watergate, plant closings, Altamont, and AIDS, back to when liberalism brimmed with optimism and a can-do spirit…” Kennedy dies not long into Obama’s first term, in August 2009, so Obama awards him a second encomium, quoting a half-page chunk of son Ted Kennedy Jr.’s funeral eulogy: “My father never stopped believing in redemption.” There is no index entry for “Chappaquiddick” in A Promised Land.
Obama is clearly fond of his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, who grew from little-girlhood to adolescence and beyond during his presidency. They’re the most alive figures in the book, toasting marshmallows on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, teasing their father about the ancient pair of sandals he liked to wear around the house. Still, he can’t resist using them as ideological props. Does anyone really believe that he started pushing green energy because Malia had a stuffed tiger and started worrying at the dinner table about threats to their live counterparts’ habitats “’cause the planet’s getting warmer from pollution”? Her father pronounces: “I was grateful that my young daughters weren’t shy about pointing out the responsibility of the adults around them to help preserve a healthy planet.” First Lady Michelle Obama figures lightly in the book (her signature program, whole grain- and veggie-heavy school lunches that kids hated, didn’t come on board until 2012), and mostly in terms of recurrent tension between her and her husband over her husband’s ’round-the-clock work schedule and the endless meet-and-greets that afflict presidential spouses. A reader might wonder about problems with the Obama marriage (Michelle’s 2019 autobiography, Becoming, recounts sessions in marriage counseling), except for the nagging suspicion that in this book Michelle, too, functions mostly as a literary device to inform readers that Obama has touched all the woman-sensitive bases. He duly apologizes for his sports-loving “machismo,” praises his wife’s “identity as an independent, ambitious-minded professional” (she briefly worked as a lawyer and hospital executive), and asserts that the role of first lady “was far too small for her gifts.”
In truth, Obama is interested in only one person: Obama himself. His book is essentially a meticulously varnished presentation of the kind of self he wants his readers to see: the youthful idealist who finds himself forced by time and political realities to temper his message—but only slightly—because he knows his particular brand of politics can make “millions of people’s lives better,” as he tells political consultant (and, later, presidential advisor) David Axelrod before his Senate run in 2002. This theme recurs over and over in the book. A state visit to Prague in April 2009 prompts him recall his Harvard Law School days when he identified with the Czech “Velvet Revolution.” A viewing of news footage from Tahrir Square in January 2011 as Arab Spring demonstrations explode in Egypt elicits the comment that “If I were an Egyptian in my twenties, I would probably be out there with them…Of course I wasn’t an Egyptian in my twenties. I was president of the United States.” In fact, he wants us to remember him as both: the wise leader who always knows what’s best for us, and also the progressive mover and shaker pushing for big changes. “The idea of letting [people] down—of leaving them to fend for themselves because their president hadn’t been sufficiently brave, skilled, or persuasive to cut through the political noise and get what he knew to be the right thing done—was something I couldn’t stomach,” he preens about his handling the Obamacare battle.
The only topic on which Obama displays what he undoubtedly considers becoming modesty is his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009, nine months into his presidency. The prize seemed to be a reward to Obama for not being George W. Bush. And indeed, by October 2009 (and also on many pages of this book) the jet-hopping Obama has already fulsomely displayed his enthusiasm for the “United Nations and other international institutions” dear to the hearts of the Nobel Committee and globalists everywhere. So he summons the press to the Rose Garden and gives a little speech: “I didn’t feel I deserved to be in the company of those transformative figures who’d been honored in the past. Instead I saw the prize as a call to action…to give momentum to causes for which American leadership was vital: reducing the threats of nuclear weapons and climate change; shrinking economic inequality; upholding human rights; and bridging the racial, ethnic, and religious divides that so often fed conflict.” Ah.
A Past He Can Believe In
In the service of such self-glorification no amount of hindsight-prompted truth-bending seems to strike Obama as too extreme. At the 2004 Democratic convention he had memorably declared, “There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” The speech fastened the spotlight on him as the man who could become the first African-American president, with a forthright promise of post-racial healing. But this is 2021, not 2004, and post-racial healing is out of style in this new era of Black Lives Matter and white-privilege hectoring. So Obama retcons the line as “more a statement of aspiration than a description of reality.” In a similar revisionist spirit he claims to have supported gay marriage (“marriage equality”) as early as 2010, even though it wasn’t until 2012, with his finger to the wind, that he jettisoned his 2008 campaign position that marriage was between a man and a woman. And it’s amusing to see Obama retroactively adding a “Q” to “LGBT” years before that fifth letter became commonplace in woke circles.
One of the surprises in reading A Promised Land is noticing that, aside from Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, the latter pushed through Congress by a parliamentary maneuver that left its 20,000 pages of legislation unread by nearly everyone who voted for it, very few of Obama’s touted progressive initiatives either became realities or worked out well if they did. The stimulus package did little to relieve the Great Recession, with billions of dollars frittered away on infrastructure projects that never came to pass and loans to financially rickety solar startups such as Solyndra. An ambitious carbon-capping bill died in the Senate, as did a DREAM bill designed to make citizens out of illegal-immigrant children. Obama might have thought that to be young in Tahrir Square was very heaven, but his obvious ignorance of Islamic-world politics led to his calamitous withdrawal of support for erstwhile American ally Hosni Mubarak, which alienated both Israel and other Arab governments and shoved Egypt under the thumb of the Muslim Brotherhood once Mubarak was gone.
There were other strategic and political disasters in the name of Obama’s airy notions about human rights in and for the Dar al-Islam: the Libyan debacle, massive new troop deployments in Afghanistan, and proposals to close Guantanamo, try 9/11 terrorists in civilian courts, and build the Ground Zero mosque. This is not even to mention his Cairo speech in June 2009, where he compared Palestinians to American blacks who had suffered slavery and segregation, and the Palestinian cause to the American civil rights movement. Israel comes in for quite the thrashing in A Promised Land: seven pages of denunciations of its “continued occupation of Palestinian territories…a violation of international law,” and its “hardened” attitude toward peace talks—coupled with some chin-pulling about the Holocaust to show how even-handed he is.
For these setbacks Obama occasionally blames himself. As high unemployment persists through 2010, midterm election day looms, and polls show Americans thinking his stimulus package hasn’t done anything for them, “I found myself wondering…whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in.” He also occasionally blames the press, which sometimes fails to demonstrate the 100 percent enthusiasm that he desires for himself and everything he believes in.
But most often, Obama blames the Republicans—and indeed anyone who can be called conservative or libertarian: the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and other such nefarious actors. “Right-wingers” torpedo chances of GOP cooperation on his climate bill. “Business groups” mount a campaign to make “regulation” a dirty word. Voters have been brainwashed by the “Republican idea” that “government is the problem.” The “Republicans” in Congress are “sabotaging the economy” because they won’t cooperate on his budget. “Could I really hope to find common ground with a party that increasingly seemed to consider opposition to me to be its unifying principle…?” he asks. Individual Republicans also get scoldings. John Boehner, who succeeds the compliant Nancy Pelosi as House speaker in 2011, tries to get rid of Obamacare and cut federal spending. Mitch McConnell deep-sixes an Obama plan to raise taxes on the “rich.” Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, does “Big Oil’s bidding” and refuses to march to the Obama climate-change drumbeat. Sarah Palin spews “nativist bile.” Finally comes the ultimate Republican bogeyman, Donald Trump, making his political debut by latching on to the “birther” controversy in February 2011, just as Obama is having it out with Boehner and a kettle of newly elected GOP deficit hawks threatening to start “undoing whatever I’d done.” It is here, some 672 pages into Obama’s bulky narrative and 29 pages from its end, that the former president suddenly sheds his magisterial, self-regarding cool and…plays the racism card. “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, [Trump] promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
Obama had every reason to be irritated by accusations that he had been born in Kenya, not Honolulu (something that would have been nearly logistically impossible for his mother in 1961) and thus not a “natural born citizen” as the Constitution requires. Also perhaps understandable was his frustration that he suddenly didn’t have a tractable Democratic House to do his legislative bidding. But the above statement is a far cry from “There is not a black America, a white America.” And it is this, not the bin Laden killing, that takes up the last chapter, that is the real finale to that first two years-plus of his presidency. From then on, and to this day, the stance of American progressives such as Obama would be not a search for “common ground” (Obama’s own words) with their ideological opposite numbers but open warfare: contempt, cancellation, and even, most recently, tacit endorsement of outright violence.
After the period covered in this book, Obama stopped trying to tell the American people “a story they could believe in” and took up his “pen” and his “phone” to get what he wanted done. Barack Obama really did change the American political scene.