They say it is better to be lucky than smart – and better still to be both. Barack Obama is undoubtedly smart. But his rise to the presidency was also marked by instances, large and small, of good luck. Obama was fortunate to come of age in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, when elite educational institutions, including Columbia College, where he received his undergraduate degree, and Harvard University, where he studied law, were actively recruiting Black students after many decades of racial exclusion. He had the ambition and talent to take full advantage of these opportunities. Fortune smiled on his early political campaigns. When he ran for the US Senate in Illinois in 2004 his main opponent in the Democratic primary had his candidacy derailed when his wife went to court alleging domestic abuse. In the election that followed, Obama's Republican opponent Jack Ryan withdrew when it was alleged that he had forced his wife to accompany him to sex clubs.
Obama was also lucky when he first ran for president. A few weeks before the election of 2008, the global financial crisis struck, not only inspiring a widespread desire for political change but revealing that Obama's opponent, Senator John McCain, had virtually no grasp of economics. Obama was also fortunate, given the currents that have since been tapped into, that McCain was a decent man who did not seek to whip up racial resentment against a Black candidate whose middle name was Hussein. How long ago 2008 now seems, when McCain gracefully conceded defeat and commentators spoke of Obama's victory as the dawn of a "postracial" era. And when it comes to Obama's hopes for a positive historical reputation, he could not have chosen a better successor. The contrast between Donald Trump and Obama confirms the "law of American presidents" devised by the late British scholar of American history, J. R. Pole: every president makes his predecessor look good.
Americans do not choose their leaders based on literary talent. One of Andrew Jackson's campaign slogans in the election of 1828 was: "Vote for Jackson, who can fight, not John Quincy Adams, who can write". But after four years of Trump, many people evidently want to read something more elevated than a cascade of insulting tweets. Thus, Obama's A Promised Land, a long, elegantly written memoir of his first two years in the White House, appears at precisely the right moment. A one-man economic stimulus plan for a publishing and bookselling industry battered by the pandemic, Obama has seen his volume's global first print run exceed 5 million copies. Books about Trump sell; books by Obama sell even better.
Nineteenth-century presidents did not generally write books chronicling their time in office. (The first to do so was James Buchanan, on whose watch the nation splintered in 1861. His memoir was mostly devoted to blaming everyone but himself for the Civil War.) More recently, nearly every former president has felt the need to set pen to paper, usually, though not in Obama's case, with the help of ghostwriters. A Promised Land is certainly among the most impressive contributions to this minor genre. The book begins with a brief overview of the author's upbringing – as discussed at greater length in his earlier memoir, Dreams from My Father, 1995 – and his career before reaching the presidency; it ends in May 2011, two years and four months after his inauguration, with a vivid account of the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Obama comes across as literary, tolerant and dignified. A gifted writer, he maintains the reader's interest for over 700 pages.
A Promised Land alternates between long discussions of public policy, foreign and domestic, and revealing descriptions of family life in the White House. On the latter subject Obama is quite candid. (Perhaps too candid – his daughter Malia may not appreciate her father's reference to her "body mass index" having "increased somewhat" when discussing Michelle Obama's efforts as first lady to combat childhood obesity.) Obama does not try to sugar-coat the toll his political career exacted on his wife. "This isn't what I signed up for", Michelle tells him during his term in the Illinois legislature, when she was constantly left alone with their two young children. She later declares that she hates politics and does not want him to run for higher office, adding that she probably won't even vote for him. The book contains many small but touching private moments. Obama, for example, suggests to the two White House butlers, both African Americans, that it is not necessary for them to wear formal attire when serving dinner to the family. One replies, "we just want to make sure you're treated like every other president".
When Obama deals with major policy issues, his inner professor (he taught for a decade at the University of Chicago Law School) makes an appearance. Each discussion opens with a lucid, well-informed history lesson establishing the context – for example, the evolution of the Senate filibuster; efforts, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, to enact universal health insurance; the origins of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict – and then proceeds to a detailed account of how decisions were made. Obama frequently adopts a self-deprecating tone (when informed that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he remarks, "for what?") but he is not given to introspection. Rather than view past events from the vantage point of the present, the book keeps the reader firmly in the moments it is describing.
In his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama managed to attract what he calls a giant "grassroots infantry", for whom he became "a vessel for a million different dreams". This was a mixed blessing. As the former Czech leader Václav Havel tells him during one of Obama's trips to Europe as president, "You've been cursed with people's high expectations". Indeed, much of A Promised Land is framed as an answer to progressives within Obama's own party, who came to view his presidency as a missed opportunity for far-reaching change. In a recently published biography of one of Obama's heroes, Abraham Lincoln (Abe, 2020), the historian David S. Reynolds describes the Great Emancipator as a "principled centrist" who adhered to high-minded ideas but understood the limits of the politically possible. This is how Obama portrays himself – as an idealist who promised "Change We Can Believe In" but sought a middle ground between Left and Right. He emphasizes the powerful barriers to the exercise of presidential power, especially in domestic matters, erected by the American constitutional system. Addressed in part to young people who want to change the world, the book demonstrates how hard that is to do, even from the White House.
But more than this, Obama frequently returns to the tension between a social outlook he imbibed from his activist mother, reinforced when he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, and the pull of realpolitik. He writes that he has drawn inspiration from the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, in which his mother took part, as well as from other crusades for structural change, such as the battles for women's suffrage, labour rights and the abolition of slavery. A surprising omission from this list is Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when emancipated slaves demanded, and for a time enjoyed, the full rights of American citizens. That era has direct relevance to Obama's own career. It was during Reconstruction that Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first Black senator in US history. A century-and-a-half later, Obama became only the fifth. (There have now been ten.) Obama is well aware that the nation's history has more than its share of "conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism". Yet while his heroes are the critics and reformers – he singles out Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King – he still embraces the egalitarian "promise" of America.
The shift from an idealist committed to structural change to a pragmatist began almost as soon as Obama became president, with his appointment of a team of economic advisers closely tied to the banking institutions and neoliberal policies that had helped to bring about the financial crisis in the first place. The demobilization of the grassroots movement that had put him in the White House soon followed. Had that movement survived, it might have provided a counter to the right-wing (and often nakedly racist) populism of the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009 to combat Obama's economic and healthcare initiatives.
Obama frequently expresses irritation in these memoirs with progressive Democrats who pressed for what he considers unattainable initiatives, such as single-payer universal health insurance and the nationalization or break up of the largest banks. He refers to their "carping" and "grumbling", their "starry-eyed plans", even while noting that he had "some sympathy with the Left's indictment of the status quo". He tells us that before his inauguration he perused books on Franklin D. Roosevelt's celebrated first 100 days in office, to see how FDR responded to public demands for bold action at a time of economic crisis. Yet Obama's economic stimulus legislation ended up being far smaller than most economists believed necessary. And his administration seemed to spend more energy bailing out banks and other large financial institutions than assisting homeowners facing foreclosure, or Americans who had lost their jobs.
His task, Obama writes, was not to remake the economic order but to prevent an even worse disaster. In this he succeeded. But Obama has to acknowledge that the bailouts seriously damaged his popularity, a situation exacerbated by the behaviour of bankers reluctant to give up their lavish bonuses even as the economy collapsed. In one of the rare instances of the author questioning his original policy decisions, he now wonders about the wisdom of his emphasis on restoring the pre-crisis system without tackling many of its structural flaws, about whether he should have been "bolder". He does not provide an answer.
The presidency, Obama writes, revealed his true political character: "I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision". This sensibility informs not only economic policy but also Obama's lengthy account of the passage of the Affordable Care Act (universally known as Obamacare), a complex measure that significantly expanded access to healthcare but left the insurance companies intact. Once again, he resents what he considers the utopian outlook of those members of his own party who favour a single-payer system that does away with private insurance entirely, or at least offers a "public option" – a government plan that would compete with private insurers, forcing them to lower their prices. Of course, utopian thinking comes in many forms. Obama's dream of restoring an imagined golden age of bipartisan co-operation turned out to be at least as unrealistic as the ideals of his critics. Republicans, it turned out, had no interest in working with him; almost unanimously, they opposed any form of government-sponsored health insurance. At this point, Democrats and their independent allies enjoyed a majority in both Houses of Congress. But in the Senate, which requires sixty senators to end a filibuster, there were no votes to spare. Thus, and for one of the few times in his presidency, Obama engaged in old-fashioned horse trading, first making concessions to drugs companies, hospitals and insurance firms, then cutting deals with wavering Democrats and the few Republicans who could be persuaded to vote yes.
Obamacare may well be Obama's most enduring domestic achievement. But, as he laconically notes, the way it was enacted was not exactly "the new brand of politics I'd promised on the campaign trail". Today, it is quite popular. But initially Republicans were able to rouse a large portion of the public against it. With his approval ratings falling, Obama embarked on a national speaking tour in the autumn of 2010. But, he acknowledges, in part because of the emergence of the Tea Party, he "failed to rally the nation". The result was a devastating setback for Democrats in the congressional elections, with Republicans capturing control of the House of Representatives – a recipe for political gridlock in the remaining six years of Obama's presidency.
If Obama is disturbed by criticism from within his own ranks, he is truly angered by the increasing prominence in the Republican Party of what he calls a "politics of racial resentment". Tea Party rallies sometimes featured posters of Obama as an animal or an African witch doctor. Increasing numbers of Republicans seemed to find his very presence in the White House illegitimate. And of course Trump launched his successful run for the presidency with the false allegation that Obama was not US-born and therefore not eligible to be president.
Obama does not directly address how being the first African American to occupy the White House constrained his choices as president, but in one way or another this theme is implicit throughout the book. To be sure, well before he assumed office Obama walked a fine line between reassuring people of all races and ethnic groups that he spoke for them, and forging a special relationship with Black America. He seems to have assumed that many Americans would accept a Black president so long as he was not "angry". During the 2008 campaign, he said very little explicitly about race. He rejected, he writes, criticism from Black activists who wanted him to take "the most uncompromising positions". They saw Obama's campaign as a way to raise public consciousness; he wanted to win. He felt obliged to repudiate the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at the Chicago church the Obama family attended, after Wright's fiery speeches denouncing the US as incurably racist became known. In his "race" speech responding to Wright, Obama characteristically sought a middle ground, laying out the historical basis for Black grievances, while suggesting that white fears and resentments also had legitimate roots. The speech succeeded in its aim of pushing race from the political centre stage to the wings. But the equivalence Obama suggested between Black responses to centuries of inequality and white resentment over charges of pervasive racism seemed, at best, historically tone deaf.
When it comes to foreign policy, Obama again finds himself torn between idealism and pragmatism. He entered the presidency with a reputation as a peacemaker because of a brief speech in 2003 condemning the Iraq War. He made clear he was not opposed to "all wars", just "stupid" ones, and distinguished sharply between Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, of which he approved. By the time he became president, plans for the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq were well underway. But Obama had to decide what to do about Afghanistan. He offers revealing accounts of how military leaders tried to persuade him to commit tens of thousands of additional troops to that conflict. Because of what he calls her "hawkish instincts", Secretary of State Hillary Clinton almost always favoured the military's requests, while Vice President Joe Biden usually opposed them. Regarding Iraq, Obama notes, "decision makers in Washington consistently failed to level with the American people". He does not mention The Afghanistan Papers, published about a year ago in the Washington Post, which detailed the shocking history of how the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations consistently misled the public about America's longest war, citing progress when there was none and altering data to present the rosiest possible picture.
A Promised Land deals with a little over a quarter of Obama's time in office. Ahead lies a second volume, which will have to confront several issues omitted from this book but already controversial during these first two years, including the policies of Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who sought to link the allocation of federal aid to pubic schools to students' scores on standardized tests. And, of course, new questions came to the fore, among them the rise and fall of demands for gun control after various mass shootings; the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, and that of Black Lives Matter. The next volume will have to deal with immigration policy, all but ignored here, including the reasons why Obama's administration deported far more undocumented immigrants than Trump's, despite the latter's nativist fulminations. Then there will be the foreign policy successes and failures, from Obama's attempt to forge better relations with Cuba to the negotiation of an international agreement to curtail Iran's progress towards developing nuclear weapons. And it will certainly be interesting to see how Obama explains the election of his successor, who has seemed to devote his entire four years in office to undoing everything Obama had accomplished.