BOOK REVIEW: Barack Obama Tells His Story His Way — And Makes His Case For History
BY RON ELVING
In the spring of 2004, a young state legislator was driving home from a campaign event in rural Illinois when he got a phone call from Washington. A voice asked if he would be interested in giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer in Boston.
“That I felt neither giddy nor nervous said something about the sheer improbability of the year I’d just had,” that legislator now recalls in his new memoir, A Promised Land.
Back in 2004, Barack Obama took that opportunity to speak to the convention. “Let’s face it,” he began. “My presence on this stage tonight is pretty unlikely.”
An improbable year? An unlikely presence? Obama was only beginning his high-speed elevator ride to the world stage. That night in Boston his voice, then still unfamiliar, was soon rising and ringing through the arena:
“There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America.”
Thereafter, Obama was “the guy who gave that speech.” He got elected to the U.S. Senate that fall and people in Washington were asking when he would run for president.
He tells us in this memoir that he has only watched the video of that night in Boston once, and he points out flaws in his performance. That will impress some as stunning humility and strike others as “humble bragging” or downright disingenuousness.
The 44th president of the United States has always prompted extremes of reaction. Though his nature may be to seek consensus, he has tended to inspire partisan aspiration for some and equally intense resentment for others. His ascent thrilled millions but also stirred a countermovement that is still on the march.
One wellspring of that movement, of course, was electing Obama’s successor. The publishers of A Promised Land surely knew they were launching this sure-to-be blockbuster in the month when President Trump would either be reelected or rejected by the voters. They knew the mountain of memories compiled in these 700 pages would appear in a certain light, or shadow, depending on the voters’ verdict.
But this is more than Obama’s answer to four years of Trump’s rhetorical assaults and policy reversals. It is a continuation of the story that the “skinny kid with a funny name” had begun to tell well before the world was listening.
The man and the memoirist
Obama began his literary career a quarter century ago, recalling the struggles of his youth while still in his early 30s in Dreams From My Father. A second volume discussed his rising political ambitions a dozen years later when The Audacity of Hope presaged his first run for the White House.
Now, in A Promised Land, the man is approaching 60, recalling how his audacious dreams came true in 2008 and detailing the first 30 momentous months thereafter.
To a remarkable degree, the style of this latest retelling reflects the man we have seen over these years: Orderly, cautious, self-examining — yet eloquent in flashes so vivid that the world was immediately able to share something of his vision.
Or at least much of the world was able to. Reliving this history through Obama’s eyes reminds us how differently others reacted to his rise — how offended they were when he drew vast crowds in Europe while still a candidate for president — collecting the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting elected.
Whatever one’s feelings about this man, they are likely to be brought to the surface by this book. We hear his voice in every sentence, almost as if he were physically present and reading the book aloud.
For those who did not leap aboard the Obama bandwagon, much of his memoir will put them in mind of what put them off. To be sure, there were countless issues of policy on which to differ with the 44th president and many elements of his personality to judge for oneself. There were also, as he puts it, plenty of people who never got past being “spooked by a Black man in the White House.”
But for those who felt the magnetism and power of the first African American president, at any point in his career, this book should rekindle some of that feeling of discovery. For the truly faithful, some of these pages may have to be read through tears.
Reviewing the history
Obama begins this account by briefly revisiting his rather aimless adolescence, but he moves swiftly on from college identity crises to community organizing in Chicago to Harvard Law School. Soon he is back in Chicago, meeting Michelle Robinson at a law firm, working and making a life in the boom years of the 1990s.
Embedded throughout this dense text are frequent valentines addressed to Michelle. We see her as a smart young lawyer, assessing the trainee who will become her husband. They are soon involved, friends as well as co-workers, then lovers as well as spouses. They marry and have two careers and two daughters but also work at remaining a romantic couple.
He runs for office, aiming too high the first time and losing. He meets David Axelrod (who will be “Axe” the rest of the way), a former newspaper reporter who has become a political consultant and understands Chicago’s complex racial politics. Obama wins a seat in Springfield, then an improbable promotion to Washington.
Much of the first 200 pages suggests a Hollywood biopic, with a lot of soft focus and camaraderie and heart-warming music. We meet the campaign’s inner circle — Axe, campaign manager David Plouffe, “Memo Master” Pete Rouse, spokesman Robert Gibbs and aide de camp Reggie Love — and all the other buddies who keep the candidate loose and focused, like the crew Shakespeare sketched around Prince Hal.
At one point, Obama retells how his innermost circle thrashed out the decision to run for president in 2008. Michelle makes no secret of her reluctance. She finally asks him why he has to run when Hillary Clinton and so many other Democrats are running who are better known and more experienced.
“I know,” her husband replies, “that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be the president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country — Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in — they’ll see themselves differently too. … And that alone … that would be worth it.”
Michelle relents with: “Well honey, that was a pretty good answer.” It is only one of many times in the book that her devotion to her husband overcomes her deep aversion to politics. She appears often, not just to take a bow but to add her perspective and reveal what keeps her husband centered.
He also takes frequent opportunity to mention and share credit with the man he made his running mate back in the summer of 2008. From first reference forward, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is just “Joe.”
Obama writes: “If I was seen as temperamentally cool and collected, measured in how I used my words, Joe was all warmth, a man without inhibitions, happy to share whatever popped into his head.”
Biden reappears at crucial moments in the narrative, helping to sell the Senate on the Recovery Act and also on what swiftly came to be called Obamacare. He is there in foreign policy debates as well, often as a contrarian.
Governing as grinding
The campaign story has a happy ending. The rest of the book does not really have an ending at all. The author relives the first part of his presidency, recounting not so much a rise and fall as a battle against the unexpected and a struggle for equilibrium.
After the uplift of the throngs on Inauguration Day, we settle into the rhythm that will govern the bulk of the book — the relentless beat of governing. Much has to be done, many people must be met and accommodated. Meetings segue into more meetings. Nothing is ever easy, or really finished or quite what it seems.
As a writer, Obama manages to convey the grinding work of his first years in office without losing forward momentum. First, we see endless negotiations pull the economy back from the brink of a crash in early 2009, but it’s a slog for the reader as it was for the policymakers. Then it’s on to the Herculean efforts needed to haul the Affordable Care Act across the finish line in March 2010.
Along the way, Obama encounters united resistance from Republicans and dissatisfaction among Democrats. The economy survives the mortgage security and credit crisis, but big Wall Street banks and bankers are seen getting off easy. Health insurance is expanded, but without a “single payer” government system or a “public option” to choose one.
Obama gets to know the players in Congress, starting with the gruff and rough-edged Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader who urges his young star to run for president in 2008.
The cast of Obama intimates keeps expanding, including chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel (later mayor of Chicago) and then William Daley (brother and son of Chicago mayors). There are Republican leaders in Congress such as John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, the latter looming up again and again for his strategies and tactics against nearly all Obama’s initiatives and appointments.
But the principal irritants who get perhaps more attention than necessary are the stars of the conservative media subculture, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the prime-time stars of Fox News. Obama also contemplates the swelling power of populist sentiment on the right, from Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee in 2008 (Obama says that “she had no idea what the hell she was talking about”) to the nascent Tea Party the following year and the surge of its acolytes in Congress after the midterms of 2010. Of Palin, Obama says: “Hers was a biography tailor made for working-class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elites — whether in business, politics, or the media — looked down on their way of life.”
The bulk of the book is a crisis-by-crisis recounting of Obama’s first two years in office. He does not spare us, or himself, the controversies that studded those years. Some involve longstanding issues such as immigration, gay rights and abortion. Some involve Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United, which pared back a century of campaign finance laws. We see Obama delight in appointing two Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
We also visit the valleys between the peaks, spending somewhat less time there, as one might expect. Some seem relatively minor now, such as the firestorm over bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other conspirators from the Sept. 11 attacks to New York for trial. We may have forgotten the fracas over the building of “an Islamic community center” and mosque near what was known as ground zero, the former site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in those attacks. But these incidents still rankle Obama, who tells Emanuel: “If we can’t speak out on something this basic, then I don’t know what the point is of us being here.”
To which Emanuel replies: “At the rate we’re going, we may not be.”
Which segues to the harsh dose of political reality Obama received in the midterm elections. The Democrats lost 63 seats in the House — their worst drubbing in 72 years. Obama devotes the ensuing chapter (“In the Barrel”) to the travails of the lowest days of his first term.
They are all part of the catalog Obama seems to be keeping, like a scrapbook in his head.
Ending in suspense
Obama ends this volume (a second is in the works) with what might be called his greatest hit. The last chapter is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden that culminated in the raid that killed him in May 2011. We sit in on the tense hours as Obama and his national security team await word of the mission’s fate. Here, as elsewhere, Obama shares credit with his people, in particular Adm. William McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who planned and conducted the strike.
We watch with the president and his national security team as live video shows the raid in real time. We hear McRaven and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking in code: “Geronimo EKIA.” Enemy killed in action.
Even as the final hours tick away before the mission launches, we see Obama put on his tux and attend the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, which he could not duck without raising suspicions.
At this late moment in the memoir, a character previously glimpsed in the shadows offstage is suddenly in the spotlight. It is Trump, the real estate man and reality TV star. Obama has mentioned him before, holding him responsible for stoking years of assault on his native-born American citizenship, the imaginary conspiracy of the “birthers.”
On this night in 2011, with Trump a highly visible guest, Obama mocked the birther conspiracies and skewered a recent plotline from The Celebrity Apprentice. Cameras caught Trump barely cracking a smile amid the roars of laughter. It has been suggested since that Trump has not forgotten that night.
In truth, Obama was often lacerating in his humor at such dinners, ribbing his rivals at times but often finding the jugular as well. In this case, the target found a way to fire back.
The voice lingers
If you remember enjoying just listening to Obama talk, the cadences and content of what he said, you are likely to keep this volume handy for a long time. If you tend to tire of his lecturing style (he calls it his “droning on”), or his tendency to share what he knows with an air of knowing it’s a lot, then you will find it easier to put down.
In his early months as president, there were certainly admirers who hung on his every word. But not a few White House correspondents squinted and squirmed through his early news conferences as his answers to questions became lectures.
Yet all presidential memoirs have value, even if they are far less candid than this one. They offer a unique view from the presidential mind and suggest at least some of the conflicts and contradictions that contend within that mind.
Even if what is revealed is only what the author wishes to reveal, it is an invaluable piece of the puzzle historians will struggle to put together from here forward. If it takes time and effort to take it all in, it’s worth it.
NPR’s Michel Martin will interview former President Barack Obama to air on Monday.