What is it like to be president of the United States? A recent holder of that office, Barack Obama, takes readers behind the curtain at the White House in “A Promised Land,” the first installment of his two-volume memoir. It’s an incisive, balanced, and engaging book that, while breaking no new political ground, gives insights into the complex job of governing. It also allows Obama to loosen up his famously cerebral image.
The first volume, which covers his life before the presidency through the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is not just a retelling of his political successes and failures. It is a deeply personal book that explains the values that propel Obama forward. Nothing counts more to him than being a good husband and parent. Raised by a single mother, he was determined to be a visible and attentive father. He also describes the extraordinary role that Michelle Obama has played in his political career – she always backed whatever he wanted to do, though she intensely disliked politics and the way that it exposed their family to public scrutiny.
Given what American politics has been lately, the book seems to reflect the political environment of a different era. In January 2009, Obama believed (as did many others) that political leaders with good intentions could, through compromise and negotiation, build a stronger and better America.
But during his time in office, politics got nastier. He sees hints of it in the 2008 election when Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was “drawing big crowds and enthusiastically gassing them up with nativist bile” in a way that became a “template for future politicians.” Later, a Republican senator would tell him, “I hate to say it, but the worse people feel right now, the better it is for us.”
In the first two years of his first term, few Republican members of Congress supported any of his major initiatives – even when the legislation reflected positions they had endorsed in the past. Only three Republicans in each chamber of Congress supported his 2009 economic stimulus bill to help restart the economy. After losing control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, he got even less Republican support.
“A Promised Land” covers familiar territory: The 2009 economic stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are analyzed in detail. But other events make an appearance, such as the so-called Beer Summit, which brought together a white police officer and a Black university professor. It was an attempt to mitigate the political damage from Obama’s off-the-cuff comment that the police had acted “stupidly” by arresting the professor, who had locked himself outside his home. Obama writes “the affair caused a huge drop in my support among white voters, bigger than any single event in the eight years of my presidency.”
As he steps back to survey the larger political landscape, Obama writes that “our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis – a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.”
The central question may be whether America has – in the nearly 12 years since Obama first took office – lost the capacity to install effective, or at least passable, governance. Former President Obama has written a book that helps explain how we got to the present state of affairs and the immense challenges of governing that will face President-elect Joe Biden when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20.