Of all the rumors, insults, obstructionism and racism Barack Obama suffered during his eight years in office, the un-truth that personally offended me most was the claim he didn't write his first book, 1995's Dreams from My Father, but that the book was actually written by his next-door-neighbor in Chicago, Bill Ayers.
It's silly propaganda—arguably coarser than the rumor that Obama wasn't born in the United States—but its subtext is disbelief that a Black American could be savvy enough to be a Harvard academic, a successful statesman and a better-than-average wordsmith. The truth, conversely, is that Obama is a remarkable writer. It showed then and does today in the recently published A Promised Land (2020, Crown Publishing Group).
People who have a hard time conceding he wrote Dreams from My Father will have a harder time acknowledging its merits. The then-34-year-old Obama's first offering is a classic in the tradition of Black autobiographical tales, which begins with the slave narratives, and continues in well-known books such as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Since slavery, Black writers have introduced themselves to audiences with the autobiography (as opposed to waiting until the end of a lengthy career), immediately situating their personal stories in relation to historical racism. Obama memorably delivered a book so touching that its mythic power in no small part elevated him to the presidency.
You're heard the story, whether or not you're read the book, of his Irish mother, and his Kenyan father—a story with special emphasis placed on a father whom he barely knew, but who represented his search for a Black role model. Some 11 years later, Obama published The Audacity of Hope, a straightforward campaign book that reiterated his bio with confidence that his biracial heritage gifted him with insight into America's pointless racial divide. His presidential campaign theme, "Yes, we can," inspired dreams of bringing all Americans together.
But it's hard to approach his post-presidential memoir A Promised Land without trepidation. Obama is no longer an activist citizen—he's a battle-worn survivor of eight years of decision-making. He helmed an administration that has alternately been damned by the far right, and sometimes by the far left, with, maybe—in balance—the feeling his administration was less successful, less transformative and more war-mongering than his supporters hoped. Can any post-presidential memoir be a significant book? Can a modern politician match the few-and-far-between political tell-all classics, like The Education of Henry Adams by John Quincey Adams' grandson?
Seven hundred pages long, A Promised Land feels bloated, especially top-heavy with cute stories about Michelle and his daughters, an understandable weakness. Nevertheless, if it's possible for an ex-president to pen a major work of narrative political science, this is it.
The Dreams from My Father Obama was father-obsessed; fittingly, in A Promised Land, he marginally notes his father was "barely around." The adult Obama has, in a sense, become his own missing parental figure, and the adult has lots to say. But let's be clear about what A Promised Land is: a highly nuanced defense of all his policy decisions up until 2011. Maybe it'll change your opinion of the Obama administration, or maybe it won't, but it is admirably thorough.
The notoriously circumspect Obama unleashes his version of the story behind his decisions on the 2009 stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act and the compromises necessary to get it passed, the Wall Street bailout, climate change legislation and, yes—that most sensitive subject—his military decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq leading up to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
It would be foolish to try and summarize all of Obama's arguments, but this quote regarding the 2008 recession conveys the overall tenor:
"For many thoughtful critics, the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy is precisely the problem—a missed opportunity, if not a flat-out betrayal. According to this view, the financial crisis offered me a chance to reset standards for normalcy."
But given Wall Street's recalcitrance and political maneuvering, which he outlines in detail, Obama concludes he correctly wasn't "willing to exact more economic pain in the short term," involving "risks he couldn't take with the lives of millions."
To his critics, he explains why he could not have passed his stimulus package exactly as he wanted, even when the Democrats held both houses of Congress; he likewise explains how his generals resisted him. His military escalations were modest relative to their secret intentions.
Obama often portrays himself as the most progressive person in the room, but it's also revealing who is in the room. His moderate-to-conservative cabinet choices usually did not include representatives from the far left. I'm not sure this would have changed the final outcomes. Nevertheless, in this battle of idealism versus pragmatism, at least the opinions and strategies of the far left would have been reflected in his decision-making circle.
Obama at one point writes, "There would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better word, and what could be accomplished in a day, a week or year."
Always? It's a question which hovers over A Promised Land like a shadow, and it's more troubling because Obama's first two years in office were his most proactive. Things only got worse after 2011, when his administration confronted near total congressional gridlock. But A Promised Land is important, even remarkable, for providing a masterful account of being the President of the United States.