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What makes A Promised Land by Barack Obama one of the best American presidential memoirs

Obama’s vivid, novelistic writing brings to life his fairytale political career from state legislator to America’s first Black president.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: November 29, 2020 7:59:01 am
What makes A Promised Land by Barack Obama one of the best American presidential memoirsA Promised Land is an ode to the difficulty of judgement, even as it makes apparent where it falters.

There is a moment in Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (Viking, Rs 1,999), when he goes to meet (Czech statesman) Václav Havel. As he is leaving, Obama thanks Havel for his advice and promises him that America will pursue democratic values. Obama writes, “‘You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations,’ he (Havel) said, shaking my hand. ‘Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. I fear it can be a trap.’”

In the case of Obama, expectations from his tenure were unusually high. Here is a politician with a resplendent personality: a sparkling intelligence that shines in almost every utterance, an unusual degree of emotional intelligence that allows him to size up people and situations, enviable powers of articulation, and a character that has remained remarkably unsullied for someone in politics. But A Promised Land, a beautifully written, poignant and measured presidential memoir, one of the best in that distinctive American genre, often reads in the overall arc of its narrative, as an answer to the weight of expectations that Havel talks about.

The book has many purposes and many pleasures. It attempts to be an “honest rendering” of Obama’s time in office. It is a chronicle of what it is like to be the president. But before we get to the political story, it is worth emphasising the poignancy of Obama’s human story, made vivid by novelistic writing. It is a wonderful story of family relationships, the occasional strains and tensions but also the boundless love. His admirably warm interest in people of all kinds, in their individuality, is remarkable. The high point of the narrative thread in this story is Obama’s relationship with his grandmother, who had raised him in Hawaii. He writes “in tough spots, I tend to channel my grandmother.” But it would be a heartless soul whose eyes do not well up with tears at the paragraphs describing her last days, and what she meant to him as a moral lodestar and as a witness. He looks back to his own childhood with her — “Another time, another life. Modest and without consequence to the rest of the world. But one that had given me love. Once Toot was gone, there would be no one left who remembered that life, or remembered me in it.”

What makes A Promised Land by Barack Obama one of the best American presidential memoirs US President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle Obama, Narendra Modi and formar prime minister Manmohan Singh at the At Home ceremony of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Monday. (Express Photo by Anil Sharma)

The first half of the book is a riveting account of a fairy-tale political career that sees Obama move from a state legislator to the president. The account of his political rise is probably the strongest and most self-reflective section of the book, more so than his time as president, when the weight of history and the Official Secrets Act takes over. Though there are a share of disappointments early in his political career, there never seems to have been any doubt about his trajectory. As Emil Jones, in the Illinois legislature put it, “Barack’s different, He’s going places.” The personal drama of this part comes from the constant examination of his own motives for going into politics and doubling down on it, especially against Michelle Obama’s scepticism. But as always, there is a clinical clarity to his approach to politics, and his sense of timing and political momentum is unerring. His first campaign for political office confirmed what he already knew about himself — “that whatever preference I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose.”

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In his time in office, politics becomes the tense drama between the audacity of hope and the grim obduracy of power politics. There are three areas where Obama promised change but also bears the weight of disappointed expectations. The first is political style. All throughout, Obama maintains a studied commitment to reasonableness: a faith in the power of argument, of being above the fray, of building bridges, much to the consternation of his own side. The thing he regrets most is conveying the idea that he disrespects someone’s beliefs. And yet, how does this attitude work in a media environment committed to inflammatory propaganda, and in the face of a Republican Party embodying a Mitch McConnell type of attitude, “Like I care”? Literally every single item on the Obama agenda — from the size of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act to Obamacare to racial issues — is hostage to the partisanship. The second tension is between Obama’s seeming commitment to economic justice and his deference to a prudence borne out a fear of the power of the financial sector.

After the 2009 global financial crisis, Obama resists the calls for what he calls “Old Testament Justice” — the calls for punishing bankers and taming Wall Street. The Recovery Act, a programme of extraordinary economic and political finesse, was a considerable achievement. But this section will give grist to the mills of those who think Obama showed too much New-Testament forbearance towards Wall Street. For Obama, prudence rather than justice is the first virtue.

The third axis of tension is on race. Obama’s election was itself epochal. But he has to repress his own depth of feeling on racial issues to get there. The most difficult moments in the book are when Obama has to thread the delicate needle on racial issues. He exemplifies the burden of double consciousness: having to think of what white people think of him, and one almost senses the strain of overthinking. He is left in no doubt that his success is an affront to some people; he has to craft policy and his own conduct in a way that dampens rather than polarises the racial divide — not easy to do when the divide seems over determined. He wants economic and social policies on welfare and crime that will benefit African Americans, but always couched in universal terms so that they could be the basis of broad coalitions. So, the political story that Obama tells of his time in office is not startling in its revelations. It is startling only when you consider the monumental and tragic irony: the most reasonable of presidents subject to the most partisan rancour, a commitment to justice that leaves no one satisfied, and a sophistication on the issue of race that neither assuages white anxieties nor black fears.

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What makes A Promised Land by Barack Obama one of the best American presidential memoirs To his credit, Obama is brutally scathing about previous American interventionism, including the bloody CIA-backed coups in Indonesia.

But it is on foreign policy that the book is more disappointing. Partly because there is a template quality to his writing: a brief but formulaic history of the part of the world he is writing about, followed by deft character sketches which are brilliant, not least because of his eye for physical detail, and, then, a reiteration of America’s role in that part of the world. While he is good at giving many sides of the argument on any issue, his own world view seems to collapse under the weight of constraints, and his own desire to renew the myth of moral America. Take an example — Obama has admitted elsewhere that the intervention in Libya was a mistake. But here, he positions himself once again via a bit of triangulation. On the one hand he distinguishes his position from Samantha Power’s (a Democrat, she served as the US ambassador at the United Nations between 2013 and ’17). He remarks that the Responsibility to Protect was a doctrine without defined parameters. Having defused Power’s more expansive ideas of philanthropy by war, Obama, nevertheless, wants to reach out for an American mission. “I considered this a sign of moral progress. For most of America’s history, the thought of using combat forces to stop a government from killing its own people would have been a non-starter — because such state-sponsored violence happened all the time; because US policymakers didn’t consider the death of innocent Cambodians, Argentinians, or Ugandans relevant to our interests; and because many of the perpetrators were our allies in the fight against communism.”

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To his credit, Obama is brutally scathing about previous American interventionism, including the bloody CIA-backed coups in Indonesia. But on Libya, that caution fails him. He consults everyone. It is striking in Obama’s account how much of the American establishment, from Susan Rice to Hillary Clinton to the incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken, retained the interventionist instinct. There was significant international consensus on the issue, with both the European and Arab states supporting intervention. There is an assessment of likely causal consequences: the belief that if war started, Muammar al-Gaddafi’s instincts for self-preservation would kick in and he would negotiate a safe exit. This is an assumption that turns out to be fatally wrong. Obama was probably also premature in closing off alternatives to war. But hovering in the background is that temptation that American intervention can be the harbinger of moral progress. The contrast between his own position and the old establishment’s, however, is a distinction without difference as becomes clear in the case of Libya, Yemen and his use of drone strikes. Obama seems to think he moved the needle on America’s foreign-policy consciousness by making it more moral, but, perhaps,he forgets that the previous framework that Obama is scathing about did also cloak itself under the garb of righteousness and the fate of humanity.

It is to Obama’s credit that he presents his case as clearly and strongly as anyone can, but does not pronounce it a triumphal success. His only note of self-congratulation, and, perhaps, deservedly, is the ability to stay calm in the face of his own foreboding. There is a telling detail that Obama apparently lowers his voice the angrier he gets. This is, admittedly, only the first volume, and a full case for the prosecution and defence will have to await the second volume.

But, in its own way, this memoir is an extended reflection on the nature of modern politics. One of the remarkable things about modern politics is that it is conducted under the constant glare of scrutiny. Ironically, it is not actions that are scrutinised as much as words and persona, and literally every word or a misspoken sentence can have political consequences. There is an elective affinity between this kind of politics and Obama’s own personal hyperawareness, where he can turn the gaze of the other on himself. But calibrating oneself to that scrutiny can also make one look less authentic, more calculating. Perhaps, part of Donald Trump’s appeal was just that put-on refusal of the demands of self-awareness.

Obama appears liberal by conviction and conservative by temperament, in this sense. The moral burden he carries is of the politics of avoiding the lesser evil. This is, at one level, a responsible attitude. But it runs the risk that liberal politics justifies itself always against a lesser evil in relation to which one looks better. It cedes ambition and any risk-taking to the right wing. And, finally, there is the vexed issue of national myths. It is remarkable that Obama has a foreboding as early as 2010, that the global fate of democracy is fragile. Eastern Europe, Turkey look like they are backsliding, and Obama wonders if even India’s success is a fluke that can crumble. His faith in America is severely tested by the issue of race. But he has internalised the one lesson that the memoirs of almost any major statesman will exude in full measure: to aspire to leadership you must hold onto the national myth, the story of its exceptionalism and greatness, even in the face of great odds. You have to show that your land is indeed “a promised land”.

The left will think that Obama is making too many excuses, as if saying, the country was not ready for me; the right will argue Obama is shifting the blame to them. But both might do well to heed the advice of one of the greatest American novelists, John Williams in his novel Augustus (1972): “It seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult.” A Promised Land is an ode to the difficulty of judgement, even as it makes apparent where it falters.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is contributing editor,

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