by Matan Josephy, Opinions Reporters
photo courtesy of New York Times
Regardless of how involved any of us are, or were, in politics, the vast majority of our memories and experiences were formed at a time when the serious, stoic picture of Barack Obama hung above our classroom doors.
Yet, for the significance of Obama and his presidency, most Americans have little idea of what went on inside of it. It was a fate typical of every politician and government in the world — no matter how impactful his work was, the minutiae of the executive branch remained just as off-limits to most of us under Obama as ever.
In his new book “A Promised Land,” Obama seeks to change that.
The book doesn’t read like a deliberate attempt to give Americans a glimpse inside the highest office in our land, although it succeeds in doing so. Instead, “A Promised Land” feels more like a historical tale retold by a nostalgic veteran, each page filled not so much with a robotic recitation of facts as with an intimate recollection of a career that impacted so many.
Obama, if only briefly, first recollects his life prior to any remote ambition for higher office. He speaks nostalgically of his childhood, recounting what it was like to grow up in Indonesia and Hawaii, born to a father who was scarcely around and a mother known for rebelling against convention.
Obama’s tone is affectionate as he describes listening, wide-eyed and captivated, to his mother’s experiences marching for civil rights and her thoughts on the Watergate scandal. But above all, Obama details how, even as a child, he revered his mother’s devotion to caring for him and fighting for what was right, even if it meant financial strain. He writes that the values his mother instilled in him were driving forces behind his actions.
After documenting his childhood, Obama transitions to describing his experiences as a student in California and New York. His recollection of his time as an undergraduate is a personal one, tinged with sentimentality and touches of humor — for example, when describing his tactic of utilizing sophisticated literature to pick up girls. Through it all we get to know the Obama of the ‘80s. He is idealistic, an introvert whose love for books and devotion to social causes inherited from his mother drives him to enact change in his community. This remains clear throughout the book — Obama’s ultimate goal always remained to enact real, material change.
After detailing his college life, it’s a swift rise. In the span of a few chapters, Obama runs through his ascent in politics almost as fast as it actually happened. He writes of his time as a community organizer in the ‘90s, recounting the pleasure and meaning his work provided him. And yet, in a tone filled with the same frustration he likely felt back then, Obama details the roadblocks he and his colleagues consistently ran into when trying to enact change. Lack of funding. Bureaucracy. Governmental mismanagement. It was these chronic obstructions, coupled with the deep-seated values he developed in his youth, that drove him to run for office: the Illinois state legislature, then the Senate in 2006 and, ultimately, the Oval Office.
Fewer than a hundred pages in, Obama arrives at the looming shadow: his presidency. It’s a remarkable change of pace; after zooming through his early life, it takes a while to get used to the slow trot at which Obama describes just the first two and a half years of his tenure. Obama capitalizes on the ability to lean back and truly reflect on one of the most consequential presidencies.
Every policy decision, every appointment, every meeting, is examined. His first major issue as president was the 2008-09 recession, and in describing his response, Obama focuses as much on the broad strokes and lobbying as he does on the smaller details: countless fruitless brainstorming sessions with his economic team, the late-night letters from worried constituents and the frustrating meetings with executives and politicians are not just mentioned but explained and justified. This habit is clear throughout and cements “A Promised Land’s” position not only as a window into the presidency or an idiosyncratic remembrance, but also as a medium through which Obama defends his oft-attacked legacy.
And yet, it is around this time that Obama’s personal side comes through as well. When detailing his earlier political career, his tone remains more factual than reminiscent. The closer Obama gets to the Oval Office, the softer he appears. Paragraphs that would have been dedicated to quickly explaining crucial events in his life turn more and more into digressions, each doing less to provide historical context and more to provide intricate touches and personalizations.
His best moments are his descriptions of everyday life as a politician. Obama gives readers a genuine glimpse into what the figures we see on the news every day are actually like. For instance, Mitch McConnell is described as a power-hungry political operator who “lacked charisma or interest in public policy” but made up for it in “discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness.” This confirms to readers that what we see in front of the cameras is often, in fact, closer to reality than we might think.
Nancy Pelosi is affirmed to be a fast-talking, intense figure, while Lindsey Graham is compared to the guy in a spy movie who “double crosses everyone to save his own skin.” This touch is extended, almost without exception, to world leaders. For example, Russian president Vladimir Putin — already seen as an enigmatic strongman by much of the world — is confirmed to be as such by the President, who compares the Russian premier to a city mob boss, albeit one armed with nuclear weapons and a security council veto. In providing such intimate descriptions of the most powerful people in the world, Obama gives readers an unforgettable behind-the-scenes look.
Obama’s personal touch is best seen in his sheer amount of detail. Spending hundreds of pages on less than three years means chapters upon chapters of individual recollections, most of them meant not to provide essential information, but a general sense of his constant drive along the never-ending journey that is the presidency. Many of these experiences, even if small and unimportant in the grand scheme of public policy, work to bring the book a deeper message: being President of the United States of America is, above all else, a job.
With all the glamour comes the normal aspects of a workplace, from drama to endless meetings and briefings. And yet, the book never feels boring. Beyond being innately interesting, these smaller experiences bring readers a valuable sense of the actual experience of being president: every policy decision, action and bill of which we only see the finished product. Obama not only shows readers what goes into being President but justifies his legacy by explaining why he did what he did.
Overall, “A Promised Land” is a book like no other. It isn’t the typical political memoir, the one often half-ghostwritten that feels more like a way to get some publicity than a genuine retelling. Instead, the book is almost cathartic. Obama’s voice is clear throughout, filling in depictions of events with annotations, small notes and personal details that turned what was intended as one book into a planned two-part series.
Above all, though, one thing stands crystal clear. “A Promised Land” is described in the foreword as a way to let readers into the presidency — and it does just that. But in reality, the book is written for Obama just as much as it is for the public at large. Within the nostalgic retellings and reminiscence of his presidency lies a larger message. Just as the Oval Office looms large over Obama’s descriptions of his early years, the post-presidency, Trump-fueled reaction to Obama’s tenure looms just as large over his recollections of the presidency.
And so, Obama makes a point not just to show and tell, but to defend. It is done subtly, and with little impact on the reader, but remains omnipresent throughout the text. Every decision made is explored, wrestled with and discussed. Even to those who opposed him vehemently — on the left and right wing — this sort of reflection provides valuable insight.
The fate of Obama’s presidency is ultimately yet to be determined. But if “A Promised Land” does one thing, it is to ensure that history will hear Obama’s side of the story.