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“At some basic level people were no longer seeing me,” Barack Obama writes of his 2008 presidential campaign in his new memoir, A Promised Land. “Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams.” The same is true of A Promised Land, a memoir that reviewers have found admirable but, depending on their viewpoints, insufficiently intimate, lacking racial indignation, or just a bit glum. “I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them,” Obama thought, looking out over the crowds as he delivered one of his rousing stump speeches, marveling at the people “screaming, pushing, and grabbing,” weeping and reaching out to touch him. From the start, he anticipated “falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct.” His role was as “reflector,” he realized, of beliefs and desires he can only imagine, and as a result he would always be letting us down.
Another complaint, voiced by numerous critics, is that the book is too long—and that, even so, it’s only the first volume of the story, covering the period of his presidency up to the 2011 raid on Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed. A Promised Land features what some consider an excess of background information whenever Obama tackles a subject like the subprime mortgage crisis, the filibuster, or the Iraq war. But this seems a willful misreading of the intention the author clearly states in his preface, that his book “is for those young people” he’s encountered in recent years, eager to “remake the world”—a description of what it’s like to do the job, the wrangling of senators and foreign leaders, the management of staff, the responses to the media. To a practiced observer of the executive branch—often the sort of person who gets asked to weigh in on such a book—all this probably comes across as remedial, just so much underbrush to hack through on the way to juicy tidbits. It’s the sort of thing that made them label Obama as “professorial” when he was in office. But after all, he was a teacher for a lot longer than he was president, and a teacher he remains.
More essentially, Obama is a moderate, perhaps the last of the kind, apart from the emergency stopgap of Joe Biden, to claim any significant amount of power in the national government of the U.S. This is obvious to any reader of his two prior memoirs, 1995’s Dreams From My Father and 2006’s The Audacity of Hope. Nevertheless, he found his image tossed between roiling right-wing paranoia about Saul Alinsky and Indonesian madrassas and insistent progressives who believed his racial identity and rhetoric of hope and change signaled a leftward transformation of American politics. While trying to pass the Affordable Care Act, the greatest accomplishment of his presidency (I’m biased—I can afford health insurance because of Obama and Nancy Pelosi), Obama became unusually exasperated by complaints that by eliminating the public option from the act in order to win over a few precious, essential moderate senators, he was betraying the progressives responsible for his election. “What is it about 60 votes these folks don’t understand?” the president groused to his aides. “Should I tell 30 million people who can’t get covered that they’re going to have to wait another 10 years because we can’t get them a public option?”
“I’ll never forgive him for letting the bankers off the hook,” a friend hotly announced after noticing what I was reading. If Obama weren’t possibly the sanest, best-adjusted person ever to hold the highest office in our land, it would be tempting to view A Promised Land as an annoyed retort to such critics, disguised as a straightforward account of politics as the art of the possible. I’d just reached the chapters where Obama recounts how he and his team pulled the nation out of a financial crisis that one aide told him had a 1 in 3 chance of turning into a second Great Depression. “Trying to straddle the line between the public’s desire for Old Testament justice and the financial markets’ need for reassurance, we ended up satisfying no one,” Obama notes wryly. (Also, Attorney General Eric Holder observed that most of the Wall Street malfeasance did not constitute “prosecutable offenses under existing statutes,” and, Obama himself tartly adds, “We were not in the business of charging people with crimes just to garner good headlines.”)
Depending on your point of view, this is either a deplorable cop-out or the defense of a pragmatic politician who, despite his relative inexperience, led the nation into a recovery for which Donald Trump gleefully took credit a decade later. Anything more draconian would, Obama insists, “have required a violence to the social order, a wrenching of political and economic norms that almost certainly would have made things worse. Not worse for the wealthy and powerful, who always have a way of landing on their feet. Worse for the very folks I’d be purporting to save.” As he sees it, his response to the crisis in the first 100 days of his presidency “revealed a basic strand of my political character. I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision.”
Simply by getting elected, however, Obama played a revolutionary role in American history. He describes an early meeting of his campaign team in which Michelle, who did not welcome his run and worried about the stress it would put on their family life, corners him with a particularly penetrating question: “Why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?” The truth was that he didn’t need to as a matter of character, in the way that past candidates like Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon did. “I don’t think you’ll be unhappy if you never become president,” adviser David Axelrod told Obama bemusedly. Responding to Michelle’s question, Obama didn’t mention health care or nuclear disarmament or even the correction, via government policy, of America’s racial and economic inequities. Instead he talked about the symbolic import of his election, how the world would view America differently, and how “Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in” would feel “their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded” just seeing him take the oath of office. This answer is both vaporous (as his critics often claimed Obama’s celebrated oratory to be) and undeniably true. And it persuaded his wife.
The Obama of A Promised Land seems complicated or elusive or detached only if you think that these two elements of the president’s job—the practical and the symbolic—must be made to add up in every particular. Obama himself doesn’t. Even at his most inspiring, he was never a firebrand speechifier. He preached faith in the ability of Americans’ commonalities to overcome their differences. This is a creed in which he continues to believe, even if A Promised Land contains its share of dark allusions to the advent of division and acrimony in the form of Donald Trump. Obama is not angry, the sole quality that seems obligatory across party lines in every form of political discourse today. Plenty of people think he should have been angrier or should have displayed more of the righteous anger they’re convinced that he, as a Black man, must secretly harbor—the joke animating Key & Peele’s classic “Obama’s Anger Translator” sketch. But he no longer needs to hide it now, and while Obama gets testy and appalled on occasion, there isn’t a single page of A Promised Land that betrays an underlying layer of simmering rage. Furthermore, in his eyes, insisting on “the most uncompromising positions on everything from affirmative action to reparations” would have betrayed a disbelief that winning would ever be possible, and would have condemned his campaign to the status of “a useful if transitory platform from which to raise a prophetic voice against racial injustice.”
Instead, he wanted to win. And he did. He arrived in a Washington, he writes, permeated by “a pervasive nostalgia” for a “bygone era of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill.” Like a lot of A Promised Land, this passage is suffused with a gentle irony; Obama agrees that the nostalgia has some foundation, while noting that part of that old bipartisanship rested on the “confidence that women and people of color knew their place.” Yet he ran on bipartisanship himself, even though, as he notes, “for all their talk of wanting politicians to get along, American voters rarely reward the opposition for cooperating with the governing party.” His was a position that could only be sustained by someone with a well-developed sense of humor. How else to accommodate all of our American absurdities?
He began with unified Democratic control of Congress, only to be greeted by the rise of the Tea Party movement and the loss of 63 seats in the House in the 2010 midterms. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans thwarted his agenda at every turn. The achievements Obama recounts toward the end of A Promised Land are increasingly acts of executive power, but even the successes at the beginning of his presidency didn’t entail much reaching across the aisle.
In the meantime, it became increasingly difficult to imagine how any national politician younger than Joe Biden could fashion a thriving career out of the universalist appeals Obama used and genuinely believes in. He was both a pioneer and one of the last of a dying breed. And while A Promised Land is a pleasure to read for the intelligence, equanimity, and warmth of its author—from his unfeigned delight in his fabulously wholesome family to his manifest fondness for the people who worked for and with him, especially early on—it’s also a mournful one. Not because Obama doesn’t believe in us anymore, but because no matter how much we adore him, we no longer believe in leaders like him.