Human, all too Human: A Review of Obama’s Promised Land

You have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

- Shakespeare’s Richard II

While she was still alive, I watched a lot of daytime television with my grandma. That was pretty much my one way of spending time with her — that and going to church. Mostly we would watch the news. I know many people dislike the 24 hour news cycle we have now, but for my grandmother it meant a never-ending source of entertainment. As Wolf Blitzer ran through the latest blunders or gossip of the Bush administration, my grandmother would provide her own running commentary, usually decrying some or another politician as a ‘fool’ or making a joke about another’s appearance. I would chuckle along but mostly just sit in silence, listening, but mostly wondering to myself why this Harlem apartment was so stiflingly hot and why old people insisted on keeping the plastic on furniture they bought. Naturally, as soon as Barack Obama stepped onto the national scene in the 2008 election, my grandmother was instantly in love. “That man is so intelligent! And he looks like you, Rory!”

I remember one occasion over Christmas break in 2008, CNN was airing some story about preparations for the inauguration. My grandmother suddenly got very quiet (which itself was unusual for her); her face sank, and she began muttering “they’re not going to let him do it…they’re not going to let it happen.” Realizing she was talking about Obama’s presidency, I recall zoning in at that point and actually laughing out loud at how silly I thought she was being. “What do you mean they’re not going to let it happen? Who’s they, grandma? He already won the election, the part between now and inauguration is just formalities.” She just shook her head and kept muttering, “I don’t know.”

I naively thought I was the one explaining to her ‘how the world really works,’ but looking back in light of recent events, I realize that, as was so often the case, she grasped the whole situation much more deeply than I could hoped to have done. As a black woman who had grown up in Alabama in the 30s and 40s, there was nothing academic or theoretical to her about America’s twisted history of violence towards its Afro-descended citizens. She had known one of the mothers whose daughter was murdered in the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombings. I knew that she kept safely stowed away a copy of the April 5th, 1968 edition of New York Times, which announced Martin Luther King’s assassination. Her deep sense of foreboding was rooted in these lived experiences. Interestingly, prior to that moment, I rarely heard her talk about race or racism in her life at all, certainly not in any bitter terms, which was why her sudden fear that an African-American presidency “wouldn’t be allowed to happen” caught me off guard. Today I actually regret not questioning her further on what her experience was like, but maybe she would have been reluctant to share.

Despite all the ink that has been spilt on the subject, it is still understated what a profound moment Obama’s presidency was for America, and particularly Black Americans. Elderly black Americans especially, such as my grandmother, who had grown up in an America where racial hierarchy seemed as inevitable and immutable as gravity, quite literally could not believe that a man of clear African descent was now going to assume the highest office in the land. The fact that Obama never wrought any revolutionary changes — American empire remained intact, and even expanded under his tenure, and capitalism rolled merrily along — led some to cynically argue that his blackness was just a new face on the same power structure. And, on some level, yes, it was merely symbolic, but as the inimitable Ta Nehisi-Coates puts it in his beautiful essay, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols.”

Part of the problem was that ultimately the symbolism ended up eclipsing the man himself. At the peak of his popularity (and I can remember the 2008 frenzy well) Obama was elevated almost to the status of sainthood amongst his followers. Brilliant though he was (and is), as a mere mortal he was never going to live up to the great expectations made of him. I think part of his objective in writing The Promised Land is to recalibrate those expectations (perhaps not a difficult task after the Trump years), and ask his readers to judge him again as a man and not a deity; to remind us that despite representing that ‘arc of the moral universe’ which Dr. King foretold would one day ‘bend towards justice’, Obama himself is human, all too human. In 700 pages of engaging prose, Obama takes us through his early life, political ascendency, and most of the first term of his presidency.

Unsurprisingly, Obama is a superb writer and witty raconteur, deftly able to move seamlessly between touching and deeply personal stories about his marriage, family, and biracial heritage to rigorous discussions of complex economic policy. He pulls the curtain back on what being president is actually like on a day to day basis. In the abstract, the job sounds rather romantic: the leader of the free world! The tip of the executive spear setting America’s course for the future! In reality, the way Obama describes it, being president sounds much more like being COO of a rather staid and dysfunctional corporation. A great deal of his time seems to be dedicated to managing individuals and mediating between strong personalities. Certain portions of the book are really quite revealing in upending how we think government is run and important decisions are made. If you did before live under the impression that the federal government is a cabal of omniscient statesmen, carefully and calmly orchestrating world events, Obama will quickly disabuse you of that. Instead what he describes is just a room of smart men and women trying to figure things out as they go along and occasionally getting confused or flustered or stumped. During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, for example, there were several weeks where the entire government literally had no idea how they were going to fix the leak that was pumping 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. In a very relatable passage, Obama describes hitting his breaking point after seeing TV pundits criticize him for not doing enough to solve the problem:

“What does he think I’m supposed to do?” I growled at Rahm after hearing of Carville’s broadside. “Put on my fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”

His rifts with the military over the Afghanistan strategy are also eye-opening. I found it alarming to see how much influence and power the military brass holds over foreign policy. Almost immediately after he takes office, Obama finds himself heavily pressured by Admiral Mullen and the rest of the Joint Chiefs to send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan. Assured by the generals that final victory is almost within reach, Obama gives in and issues the order against his own instincts — something he later regrets. It did occur to me that perhaps Obama paints this situation as the military forcing his hand so as to distance himself from those hawkish decisions, but that is not the final impression I got. On the occasional times where he does try to push back, the military does not hesitate to retaliate and undermine his authority by leaking stories to the press to embarrass him. In general, the armed forces almost act as their own separate government within the government, which is not something I think most of us as civilians understand — or at least I didn’t understand before reading the book.

In fact, overall, where Obama shines is in describing, in a very heartfelt way, what a difficult position he was so often in. As not only the first black president but also a relatively young one, with only one senate term and no military experience behind him, he faced a scrutiny and at times insolence from his own reports that I think people who admire him simply cannot fathom. He also knew that so much was expected of him. On healthcare reform for example, before reading this book I admit I counted myself among those who were disappointed he didn’t push further for a single payer system or at least a public option to that effect. The memoirs persuaded me that he sincerely did want the public option and it was the stubborn resistance of Republicans, coupled with a few unfortunate series of events (the death of Ted Kennedy, and the subsequent replacement of his seat with that of a Republican after Scott Brown’s unexpected victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election) that doomed those plans. The same is true of the economy. He genuinely did want more robust stimulus and a fairer tax code, but simply lacked the electoral power to overcome the — frankly impressive — united opposition in Congress.

It is on the foreign policy front where things get a bit more interesting. More than most politicians, and no doubt owing in part to his international upbringing, Obama clearly demonstrates a strong grasp on world affairs. His meticulous discussion of the problems with the European Union being not merely cosmetic and economic, but rooted in questions about national identity and sovereignty, I found refreshingly nuanced coming from an American politician. In another chapter he gives a thoughtful overview of the icy relationship between India and Pakistan, complete with a brief history of Indian Independence and how the state of Pakistan came into existence. Obama is evidently a deeply curious man, who has spent much of his life simply amassing knowledge to help him make informed decisions.

But it’s perhaps because we know he is so intelligent that it is then even more frustrating when he seems to sink back into standard neoliberal platitudes and sanctimonious bromides that have become a hallmark of defending American power. I’m thinking here particularly of his treatment of Russia. Where he is pretty even-handed and charitable in describing other countries and the character of their world leaders, on Russia Obama is notably less gracious. He tells of a summit between himself and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. In a private meeting, when Obama tries to take Medvedev to task for the Russo-Georgian war, Medvedev retorts that Russia was not entirely to blame for the crisis and that whatever law-breaking they might have done pales in comparison to the US invasion of Iraq. Obama doesn’t seem to have any substantive answer to that rebuttal and so just falls back to:

Hearing all this, I remembered what the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said about politics during the Soviet era, that “the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.”

Really? It was the kind of lazy, blanket dismissal that is forgivable in a jingoistic, vacuous Lindsey Graham type, but is quite out of character for a former editor of Harvard Law Review. For one thing, an independent report produced by the European Union did indeed assign blame to Georgia for starting the war. It’s inconceivable that a man of Obama’s learning is not aware of this. And it’s surely quite reasonable for Medvedev to highlight the hypocrisy of an American president accusing him of violating national sovereignty as US armed forces press on with their invasions of not one but two middle eastern countries. I’m not saying that Medvedev is necessarily correct here, but his position does have some merit, and simply brushing him off as ‘a liar’ feels cheap and unfair. It was hard not to wonder if the reason Obama chooses to abandon nuance and empathy only when talking about Russia is because Obama, still sensitive to pleasing the right people in the right circles, knows he will get brownie points among his liberal base if he throws a few potshots at the commentariat’s favorite bogeyman du jour.

The general feeling that he wants to stay on script pervades the book. In Obama’s foreign policy decisions, where the executive authority naturally grants him more freedom (and therefore more responsibility for the outcomes) one might hope to get something more of an unvarnished viewpoint — a deep reflection that showcased his own philosophical framework. But there, Obama is more guarded than ever, and it’s terribly difficult to know what the man ever really thinks about a topic. Perhaps the most illuminating example of this is the Bin Laden raid, covered in the final chapter of the book. It is a fascinating story, reading, as you might imagine, like a cross between a spy novel and a Jason Bourne movie script: Special forces landing by helicopter in the dead of the night (under a new moon to maximize the subterfuge), blowing up the aircraft on arrival (they had a separate, re-fueled one to transport them back), and then storming Bin Laden’s stronghold to take out public enemy number one. It’s all rather exciting until you remember that it isn’t a novel and that it actually did happen. Frankly, I still haven’t made up my mind what to think about the raid, morally speaking. On the one hand, if anyone does deserve to be shot dead at home in front of their family in the middle of the night, then surely Bin Laden does. But does anyone? I’m not so sure. What about the fact that to get to him we had to — albeit temporarily — invade Pakistan? What about the innocent woman (a wife of one of Bin Laden’s henchmen, and conspicuously absent from Obama’s telling of the story) killed by marines simply because she was in the way as they ransacked the compound? These are weighty moral questions that surely warrant some discussion. Does Obama have any reflections on all of this? If he does, he doesn’t tell us. Clearly he thought those were tradeoffs worth making since he authorized the raid, but how did he think about them?

A good rule of thumb when considering the ethics of our foreign policy is to imagine what we would think if someone else did the same to us. Interestingly, just six days before the Bin Laden raid, an elderly man in Miami passed away peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 84. His name was Orlando Bosch and he is most well known for being the mastermind behind the 1974 bombing of Cubana flight 455, a civilian airliner which exploded over the Caribbean Sea, killing all 78 innocents onboard. The United States never prosecuted him for that crime and there are even rumors that he was actively supported by the CIA. In any event, Mr. Bosch died a free man. How would we have felt if Cuban special forces had one night parachuted into a Miami suburb and executed Mr. Bosch (and anyone else who happened to be home) in his sleep. Perhaps that’s not a fair equivalence because Cuba is an unfree country. But consider then the case of Britain and the IRA. It was an open secret for decades that the IRA drew financial and logistical support from urban areas in the north east United States, principally Boston. One infamous gun runner, George Harrison, claims he alone shipped 2500 guns and a million rounds of ammunition to the IRA from New York City — arms that were then used to terrorize the people of Northern Ireland. Yet I imagine Americans wouldn’t take too kindly to British SAS forces shooting up the South Side in the dead of the night.

None of these comparisons are exact — they never are in the real world. But they are at least similar enough to merit thought, and consider what makes one just and the other not. And I think it was that reflection that I found missing from Obama’s narrative. He does in passing acknowledge, surprisingly candidly, that the operation meant “violating the territory of a putative ally in the most egregious way possible”, but simply puts this down as one of many “operational complexities” to the mission. Perhaps I am too idealistic in wanting him to sound more like a philosopher king and less like a business executive whose business happens to be war, but what bothers me is knowing that he is clearly a deeply thoughtful man. He must think about these things, which makes his silence on them all the more deafening.

Perhaps the bigger disappointment I felt reading the book wasn’t so much with his decisions or what he believed, but that everything he wrote and said still felt calculated. Chapters are sprinkled with these long, flowing, roundabout sentences where with painstaking care he acknowledges both sides of an issue but which end without really telling you what he thinks. If he ever does land on an opinion it is invariably of the milquetoast, centrist liberal kind that is carefully crafted to offend the least number of people possible. This makes sense for a campaign, but less so when you are already in office, and not at all when you are out of office and writing a memoir. Certain chunks of the book read eerily like a campaign ad, and it’s noteworthy how many pages he devotes to his political campaigns versus his political tenures. One gets the distinct impression that Obama loved running for president much more than he loved actually being president, and for some reason that feels dispiriting.

Barack Obama falls into the category of what Hegel would call world historic individuals. If one accepts Hegel’s premise that history is a rational process, whereby the world spirit moves ever closer towards the realization of human freedom, Obama was the embodiment of that spirit when he won the presidency. His election didn’t mend racial injustice, but it did, in a very visible way, sever America irrevocably from its dark past. For doing that alone and accomplishing it with such grace, I don’t think I can ever help but admire him. But with some years having elapsed since he was in office, this memoir is useful in forcing us to evaluate the man himself, and not just what he represents. Trying to judge world historic individuals by everyday ethics is complicated and can ultimately seem pointless: “​​Morality has nothing to do with such a man as I”, Napoleon famously quipped. But it’s also something I think responsible citizens are obliged to do, if for no other reason than to keep at bay the forces of cult-like worship that can threaten a free society.

Software Engineer. I enjoy thinking about technology, finance, philosophy, and politics