“I guess the question for you, Mr President, is: ‘Do you feel lucky?’” In his new autobiography, Barack Obama recalls being asked this by his director of legislative affairs, Phil Schiliro, at a time when his options for passing comprehensive healthcare reform were narrowing.
“I looked at him and smiled. ‘Where are we, Phil?’”
Schiliro paused, assuming a catch. ‘The Oval Office?’
‘And what’s my name?’
Obama beamed. ‘Barack Hussein Obama. And I’m here with you in the Oval Office. Brother, I always feel lucky.’
And so he should. During his first senatorial campaign in 2004 Obama’s most feared and better-funded Democratic party rival imploded shortly before polling day after unsealed divorce papers revealed accusations of verbal and physical spousal abuse. He dropped out. In the general election that year, Obama’s Republican opponent had been forced to pull out after his divorce papers alleged that he’d tried to pressure his former wife to go to clubs where people had sex in public. He too dropped out.
Obama was eloquent, cosmopolitan, nuanced and consensual where George W Bush was monosyllabic, parochial, brash and divisive: his presidential predecessor highlighted Obama’s strengths and made many people hopeful, even before he’d done anything. Restrained, respectful, mature and calm where Donald Trump is impulsive, offensive, narcissistic and childish, his successor compares unfavourably and made many nostalgic even before Obama left the White House.
Now his book, a well-reasoned, well-written, insightful appraisal of his campaign and most of his first term, has landed in a moment of political farce, presidential hubris and national calamity. In the month Trump refused to concede the election and coronavirus escalated, we can read in detail of a time, not so long ago, when the president would ask for everybody else in the room to offer a view before offering his own – rather than announcing policy and staff changes on Twitter in CAPS.
A political autobiography generally has one eye on the reader (if you’re lucky) and the other on posterity – an endeavour, in equal parts explanatory and justificatory, that seeks to set the record straight and secure a favourable place in history.
As a work of political literature A Promised Land is impressive. Obama is a gifted writer. He can turn a phrase, tell a story and break down an argument. As he goes down the policy rabbit hole he manages to keep the reader engaged without condescension. The writing can be vivid. Describing a trip to the Great Wall of China, he writes: “The day was cold, the wind cutting, the sun a dim watermark on the gray sky, and no one said much as we trudged up the steep stone ramparts that snaked along the mountain’s spine.” He depicts Hawaii as a place where “slicing through turquoise waves is a birthright”, and the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig as “roiling plumes [that] looked forceful, menacing, like emanations from hell”.
Some of the most captivating episodes involve his relationship with Michelle, which swings from tense to tender. After less than two years as a senator, having disrupted family life over the last eight years as a state senator, and having run for Congress and failed, he floats the possibility that he might run for president. Michelle is livid. “God Barack … when will it ever be enough?” She has previously told him: “It’s like you have a hole to fill.”
But their pillow talk is endearing. On the night he emerges victorious from his first debate with John McCain, he recalls Michelle saying: “You’re gonna win.” “She kissed me on the cheek, turned off the bedside lamp, and pulled the cover over her shoulders.” On the morning he wins the Nobel peace prize she asks what the early call was about. When he tells her, she replies: “That’s wonderful honey,” then rolls over to get a little more shut-eye.
For all that, at 700 pages the book is too long. Initially, during his presidential run, he concludes: “I was just plain wordy, and that was a problem.” As it was on the stump, so is it on the page. Before explaining what he actually did in Iran, for example, he first explains the history that created the problem, then he describes the problem, then the various views on how to fix the problem and then, finally, how he decided to resolve the problem. If Nelson Mandela can write Long Walk to Freedom, which covers his whole eventful life over 617 pages, then Obama could surely have got through his campaign and the first three years of his administration in less.
His literary talents are his own; but the evaluation of his record lies in the hands of others. As his campaign for the presidency gained pace and traction, Obama reflects: “At some basic level people were no longer seeing me, I realised, with all my quirks and shortcomings. Instead they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams.”
Liberals struggle to subject Obama to the rigorous critique that the power he held demands. They are always liable to give him the benefit of the doubt, as if his position didn’t grant him enough benefits already. As a visiting professor at Brooklyn soon after his inauguration, I taught a course on how the media treated Obama. I stopped teaching it in the next semester because the students were simply unwilling, or unable, to criticise him. That’s partly because they understandably wanted to defend him against his detractors, in all their swivel-eyed, reactionary, obstructive and often racist attacks, as well as the fact that he towered above the plausible alternatives. But there is also a doe-eyed reverence for him that prefers the narrative of a saint thwarted than a flawed, if charismatic, politician.
The 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan receives just a couple of lines here; the escalation in deportations, thanks to a policy inherited from Bush, which he decides not to reverse, gets a paragraph; the prosecution of twice as many whistleblowers as all his predecessors combined is not mentioned.
During the Arab spring he seeks to strike a balance between younger staffers who back the protesters in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, and an older generation who want to prop up the authoritarian regime fearing the volatility and extremism that could ensue. He decides to bomb Libya, with European approval, and fails to account for the bloody chaos that has followed.
His side of the story is not, of course, the whole story. He recalls a meeting with Wall Street executives after the financial crisis in which he ripped into them for their lack of restraint over bonuses, and which they left, he believes, feeling he was anti-business. At least one of the executives remembers it differently. “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief,” he told Ron Suskind in Confidence Men. “The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
As one might expect, several hundred pages are devoted to his achievements. He performs triage on a haemorrhaging economy, introduces a form of affordable healthcare, rescues the car industry, appoints a Latina to the supreme court … and then some. One of the reasons the book is so long is because he got a lot done in a relatively short period of time.
But a list is not a legacy. Obama came to power in the middle of a financial crisis and two failed wars under the banner of hope and change, only to offer continuity. Preferring “experience to fresh talent” he appoints Bill Clinton’s economic team, makes Hillary Clinton secretary of state and keeps Bush’s defence secretary in place.
His caution is illustrated in his approach to kickstarting an economic recovery. His economic adviser tells him he’ll need about a trillion dollars. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, says: “There’s no fucking way.” Obama asks: “What can we get passed?” Emanuel says $700bn to $800bn. Having in effect negotiated with himself, the president then goes in search of Republicans to compromise with: “I had told my team to ramp up our Republican outreach. Not just for show. I said: make a serious effort.” But no Republicans vote for it. The upshot is a bill that does some good, but is inadequate to the needs of the country.
This may be all that was possible – we’ll never know, because what was necessary was never tried. It is in that gap between what was needed and what was fought for that cynicism festered and disappointment spread; how Obama fell short of the soaring rhetoric on which he ran. “When things are bad,” his chief strategist, David Axelrod, tells him, “no one cares that they could have been worse.”
There is a cautionary tale here for the president-elect, and Obama’s former vice-president, Joe Biden. Given the pandemic and the threat of an economic depression he assumes office in even worse circumstances. Republicans are even more obstructive and have even more leverage in Congress.
Obama is more perceptive about his own limitations than his cheerleaders are. When a sceptical Michelle grills him on his presidential ambitions, she asks him: “Why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?” He answers: “I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath … the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in – they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.”
Four years later, during a trip to Brazil, he visits a favela in Rio de Janeiro, waving at the black and brown kids who clamour to see him. “I’ll bet that wave changed the lives of some of those kids forever,” says his senior adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett, who was in the room with Michelle all those years ago.
“I wondered if that were true,” he ponders. “However much it might cause them to stand straighter and dream bigger, it couldn’t compensate for the grinding poverty they encountered every day … By my own estimation, my impact on the lives of poor children and their families so far had been negligible – even in my own country.”
• Gary Younge is a sociology professor at the University of Manchester and a Type Media Fellow. A new edition of his book, Who Are We? How Identity Politics Took Over The World was published by Penguin Books in September. A Promised Land by Barack Obama is published by Penguin. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.