Book Review | The Failure of Impartiality

Barack Obama reflects back on triumphs and lessons learned.
Obama memoir cover

A Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Crown Books,
751 pp., $45

Barack Obama’s transformation from youthful and eloquent U.S. Senate candidate to prime-time sensation and putative presidential timber came at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His keynote address made a deeper impression than the forgettable speech of the nominee, Senator John Kerry. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America,” Obama told the convention. “There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America…” This declaration, the former president now concedes, was “intended more as a statement of aspiration than a description of reality.”

Obama the keynoter cast aspersions on the shorthand color-coding of states by party preference, observing that “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” By the end of his presidency, all but about ten states were sufficiently red or blue that they could be safely called a year before the election.

President Barack Obama works in the Oval Office, Oct. 18, 2013. (Photo credit: White House / Pete Souza)

In other words, throughout the first volume of Obama’s post-presidential memoir,
A Promised Land, the aspirations he felt and expressed as candidate and president are in frequent conflict with the realities of campaigning and governing in 21st-century America. The reader sees the conflict play out in issues of red vs. blue; of Black vs. white; in crime, policing and gun control; and in Middle East politics.

On race, the differences between Black and white America today are stark—measured by economic indices, rates of COVID-19 infection, experiences with law enforcement and political party preference. Obama himself, thanks to the grandparents who largely raised him, was probably more conversant with life in a middle-class white American family than either the rich white patrician who preceded him in the White House or the rich white parvenu who followed him.

Obama walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport, March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: White House / Pete Souza)

Still, racial difference is a persistent theme in his story. When he catches the bug to run for president, encouraged by adoring crowds, fawning mass media and the support of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a skeptical Michelle Obama asks him, “Why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?” He answers that if he were president, “the world will start looking at America differently…Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded.” It is the winning answer.

He is careful not to call his election a “post-racial” milestone. In office, though, he is often surprised when racial issues trip him up. Early on, as he was battling for his health care plan, an episode of racial difference bumped that and all else off the news: his calling out the Cambridge, Massachusetts police for having “acted stupidly” in arresting the eminent Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A neighbor had called the cops when Gates had trouble opening the jammed front door of his own house. Suspected of burglary for trying to open his own front door, Gates accused the officer of racism and was booked for disorderly conduct.

Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley toast at the start of their “beer summit” in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009. (Photo credit” White House / Pete Souza)

Retelling this story in his memoir, Obama is exquisitely fair. Having gone to Harvard Law School, he writes, he knew that “the Cambridge police department didn’t have the reputation for harboring a whole bunch of Bull Connor types.” Having met Gates (as unlikely a break-in artist as one could imagine) and knowing of the scholar’s gift for lip, Obama imagines him capable of “a provocative cussing out” of the cop that might make “even a relatively restrained officer …feel his testosterone kick in.” The unwarranted suspicion of middle-class African American men is a common experience, and Obama expected the story to go away quickly: He invited Gates and the police officer, Sergeant James Crowley, to the White House for a beer. In fact, his top political aide David Axelrod later told him it had cost the president his biggest single loss of white support in the polls.

Throughout the first volume of Obama’s post-presidential memoir, the aspirations he felt and expressed as candidate and president are in frequent conflict with the realities of campaigning and governing in 21st-century America.

Obama relates several such significant conflicts between the presidency that he had imagined and the reality that he confronted, exhibiting a capacity for self-doubt and introspection that took leave of the White House when the Obamas packed their bags and the Trumps moved in. As the 2010 midterms and a Republican landslide loomed, Obama writes, he was frustrated by his failure to communicate his administration’s efforts to bring a moribund economy back to life. Should a stimulus tax cut be given in a single lump sum or in bi-weekly increments? Economic policy maven Larry Summers said small increments would more likely be spent and serve a stimulative purpose. Political hand Rahm Emmanuel said they would go unnoticed in paychecks that way and yield no political bang.

Obama visits Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, along with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avner Shalev, March 22, 2013. (Photo credit: White House / Pete Souza)

Obama went with the more worthy policy and paid the political price. Polls, he writes, showed that more Americans thought he had raised taxes than cut them. “FDR,” he concludes, “would never have made such mistakes, I thought. He had understood that digging America out of the Depression was less a matter of getting every New Deal policy right than of projecting confidence in the overall endeavor…Just as he’d known that people needed a story that made sense of their hardships and spoke to their emotions…FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics.”

Obama has a similar bout of acute self-scrutiny when he revisits the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a massive undersea gusher that spewed oil into the gulf for six weeks. Reviewing the transcript of his remarks at a White House news conference dominated by the story, Obama writes, “I’m struck by how calm and cogent I sound. Maybe I’m surprised because the transcript doesn’t register what I remember feeling at the time or come close to capturing what I really wanted to say…” That would have been the castigation of the U.S. underfunding government preparedness in favor of tax cuts; of the political coddling of oil and gas companies; and of a national preference for big cars over environmental protection. Instead, he “somberly took responsibility.” “Afterward,” he acknowledges with some regret, “I scolded my press team, suggesting that if they’d done better work telling the story of everything we were doing to clean up the spill, I wouldn’t have had to tap dance for an hour while getting the crap kicked out of me.”

Obama relates several significant conflicts between the presidency that he had imagined and the reality that he confronted, exhibiting a capacity for self-doubt and introspection that took leave of the White House when the Obamas packed their bags and the Trumps moved in.

Many Jewish readers seem to have skipped directly to Chapter 25 (of 27), where he writes about the first two years of his administration’s policy in the Middle East. Israeli right-wing commentators have seized upon Obama’s brief narrative of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this volume as verging on anti-Semitism, merely because he opposes both Israeli West Bank settlements and Palestinian attacks on Israel. On the latter, while acknowledging Yasser Arafat had used often “abhorrent” tactics, he also observes that Palestinians “lacked self-determination and many of the basic rights that even citizens of non-democratic countries enjoyed.” His critics tend to omit mention of his administration’s persistent defense of Israel at the United Nations and his continuing to arm Israel during its 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, which claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives and was widely criticized abroad.

These events, and his difficult relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will no doubt figure in the next volume of his memoirs, but the outlines of his view of U.S. Middle East policy are evident in this one and not all that different from his predecessors’. For instance: There is a special relationship with Israel; it complicates American diplomacy to have to defend Israeli actions that conflict with U.S. human rights policies elsewhere in the world; the status quo on the West Bank is unsustainable; a two-state solution is desirable; West Bank settlements are undesirable. Not exactly the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but presented with an exaggerated expectation of compromise and reason in a conflict measured in such terms as redemption, annihilation, displacement and return—big passionate stuff that might have stumped even an FDR.

Obama examines remnants of the BP oil spill in Louisiana, May 28, 2010. (Photo credit: White House / Pete Souza)

Obama was our first president to grow up knowing of Israel as a regional David turned Goliath. Taken with Leon Uris’s Exodus, which he read in the sixth grade, he was raised by his mother to regard the Holocaust as an “unconscionable atrocity” comparable to slavery. He was inspired by a Jewish camp counselor who had lived on a kibbutz and described its culture of equality. Even so, his parsing of Israelis’ and Palestinians’ needs is as impartial as his views of Skip Gates and Sgt. Crowley, a stance that ultimately earned him the resentment of both peoples.

There are, of course, many political and policy triumphs recalled in the memoir.
A Promised Land ends shortly after the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. It is related with great admiration for the Navy SEALs and their commander and with some fair claiming of credit. The call to proceed with the operation was Obama’s as president; some of his closest advisers (including his vice president) were more cautious and presumably would not have approved the raid. There is no
hand-wringing in retrospect from Obama the memoirist, nor any triumphal dance in the end zone.

Like John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama heralded the arrival in power of both a long-excluded minority group and an impatient, idealistic generation. Obama’s racial identity made for the more stunning breakthrough; indeed, he was the first politician with roots in the poor, formerly colonized, exploited global South to lead the government of any nation in the rich, industrialized global North. Generationally, the story is different. The six men who followed JFK in the White House over the nearly 30 years after his death were all born in the 1910s or 1920s and performed some service during World War II, even if duty was as light as making war propaganda films (Reagan) or as brief as starting active duty in 1946, just in time to qualify for a World War II Victory medal (Carter). They were all roughly JFK’s contemporaries.

By contrast, Obama succeeded two presidents born shortly after the war (Clinton and Bush) and was succeeded by a third, Donald Trump, who was then defeated by a man still older, Joe Biden. He did not kick open the White House door to a new generation. Obama remains our only president to have been born after the H-Bomb, Brown v. Board of Education and the arrival of television sets in American households. He was the first Democrat in 40 years to run without his take on the Vietnam War somehow figuring in his political identity. He was simply too young, the emissary of a new generation that has yet to send us a second president.

With JFK, Obama shared a gift for oratory and a more honestly earned renown as a politician who could write. The most pleasant thing about A Promised Land is its very readability. Yes, he still can.

Former NPR host Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.

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