Of course, for many presidents, historical status is only achieved over time, when new knowledge and arguments emerge. This is one reason why the President’s memoirs are important. This book is a major major document about his presidency in ways that Obama intended – to offer his version of events – and in ways that he may or may not have intended, as a window into his mind as a leader and as a writer.
The intelligence and seriousness and self-seeking mind are evident on each side. However, by the time the 700 pages of the narrative are closed – the remaining five years of his tenure still await a later volume – it is clear that these features do not always lead to the kind of presidency he wanted. They can even be a slight obstacle.
There is no doubt what kind of presidency he wanted. In his rise to power, Obama and his deputies frequently relied on Lincoln’s language and imagery and encouraged the belief that one Illinois politician was some sort of historical descendant of the other. The suggestion was that the president who released African Americans from bondage was mystically linked to the first African American to assume the presidency.
Again in this book there are occasional Lincoln references, as well as a helpful reminder from Obama himself of how he mocked the Clintons with his definition of the height of president in the 2008 competition with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Bill Clinton had been a good but slightly consistent president, unlike Ronald Reagan, who “had changed America’s trajectory in a way that outlasted his term of office.”
Obama set the bar for himself A promised land in a second way: as a writer. No president since Lincoln rose to the office so closely tied to the power of words. Just as the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas and the Cooper Union’s 1860 speech made Lincoln national power, Obama’s 2004 Democratic keynote made him almost instantly a global celebrity. He was also the first president since John F. Kennedy whose national reputation was so closely tied to his reputation as a book author. JFK shaped and machined Profiles in courage, but we now know that he wasn’t actually at the keyboard. But Obama is president Dream about my father and The boldness of hope emphatically wear his rhetorical signature.
All of this brings a great deal of anticipation for his first book after the presidency, more than the strictly written one for George W. Bush’s Decision pointsfrom 2010 or Bill Clinton’s expansion My lifeThese expectations provide an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between leadership and writing: both are windows into character.
The greatest historian of the Civil War James M. McPherson of his generation wrote an insightful essay a few decades ago on the greatest memoir ever written by an American president. The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant did not affect his presidency. They were about his experience in the civil war. In a brilliant piece for the New York Review of BooksMcPherson showed how the memoirs explained why the North won the war. It wasn’t just what Grant revealed about Union strategy. so he wrote about it. Despite his laconic public reputation, Grant’s late appearance as a writer showed “an unprecedented talent for pithy, lively narrative performance.” That talent happened to be closely tied to the intellectual and personality traits that made Grant the right commander to manage a union affair that had previously suffered under the wrong generals.
Describing how he prepared the terms of delivery for Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Grant wrote: “When I put my pen on the paper, I didn’t know the first word to use when writing the terms. I just knew what was on my mind and I wanted to make it clear so that there would be no mistake. “
“Better advice could not be given to an aspiring writer,” said McPherson. (His whole essay Well worth reading it in full and paying for it to get access to NYRB’s addicting archives.) Furthermore, this clarity of purpose is exactly the same trait that made Grant a better commander than anyone else that were more polished or who had more illustrious records at the beginning of the war. As a writer, even though he was plagued by the cancer that would soon kill him, Grant’s “sentences are brimming with action verbs,” an echo of his instinct for action and intolerance of delays as a commanding officer. The precision of his speech as a memoirist was indicated by the precision of his commands to subordinates on the battlefield. This is “no small matter,” said McPherson, as the war “had many instances of vague, ambiguous, or confusing orders that affected the outcome of a campaign or battle”.
How does Obama compare to the Grant Standard?
Obama as a writer makes it clear: he spends a lot of time in his own head, and Obama as a politician and president did the same. He clearly believes that if he can explain himself adequately – how smart he is, how diligent he is with questions, and how keenly he thinks about different points of view – it will lead people to compassionately look at the decisions he makes Has.
It worked for me. But note-takers may not be the most representative audience. The record of his two terms in office showed that many people – especially the relentless and ruthless Republicans on Capitol Hill – didn’t care how smart and serious and conscientious he felt.
That opposition was evident in his early days in office when Republicans failed to pass bailouts to tackle the crater economy caused by the financial system failure in late 2008 in the final months of Bush’s tenure. Once those Republicans had a backlash against Obama – the financial bailout, the affordable care bill, the pent-up resentment of a black man in the White House – and big wins in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama never had a fully adequate strategy for doing so again winning what he hoped would change history.
He writes that he expected the passage of the Affordable Care Act, “an issue that most affects people’s daily lives”, would be his best shot “Building the momentum for the rest of my legislative agenda.” Instead, it was his last major legislative win on a major public policy program. After 2010, he had to rely on the kind of elaborate improvisation and incrementalism that he once patronizingly attributed to Bill Clinton.
This experience leaves him with a lot to explain. And explaining his determination left the writing process indelible. As he writes in the preface, Obama assumed that he could achieve what he wanted in a treatise “on perhaps 500 pages”. He adds, “I expected to be ready in a year, but despite my best intentions, the book continued to grow in length and scope.” Now he has a whole second book to write.
“He’s an excellent writer, but no one would accuse him of being succinct,” said Rachel Klayman, his editor at Crown New York Times, in a quote that sounded a little nervous.
Was it worth it?
There is no doubt that he has confirmed his status as a writer. This is an exciting, if somewhat exhausting, story. His sketches of colleagues like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and Valerie Jarrett as well as opponents like Mitch McConnell are filmed with style. Sometimes the seriousness sounds a bit like a smart student in a college admission essay – where the standard art form is introducing a moral crisis and resolving it skillfully. We read of his immersion in Marx and radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, along with the realization that this should in part impress young women and how he had always been amazed at books that “have rejected the concept of the American state of emergency”. He nods to his efforts to (partially) overcome (a) preference for navel gazing over action. Sometimes his self-criticism for being too cerebral or detail-oriented in speeches or debates sounds like ponderous, like those people who, when asked to describe weakness, say they care too much or are too impatient with colleagues, whose standards are not that high. He almost always shows more attractively that he understands the perspective of even those who criticize him.
The only place he never sounds staged is when he’s talking about his family. He often writes about his dedication to Michelle Obama and concerns about the strain his political career and travel commitments sometimes place on his marriage. His joy in spending time with daughters is fun to read.
These are personal insights, but the success of A promised land will ultimately turn on how it affects the historical light in which Obama is seen.
The book is a reminder of how amazing Obama’s rise was. He went from a lost Congressional campaign in 2000 when he was considering leaving politics to being a U.S. Senator to a re-elected president in just over a decade. Perhaps part of the reason the narrative took so long and was so detailed was that Obama had to process for himself episodes that had blended together at such a breathtaking rate.
In my opinion, the book also narrows the ground on which the long-term debate about Obama is conducted. It would be difficult to argue – without tending to be ideological or partisan – that Obama wasn’t at least a good president. He dealt coolly with an economic crisis which, if badly treated, would have been catastrophic, and kept his promise to expand access to health care to millions of people. He ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
It’s not hard to make an argument that historically it is something of a shrug, however. In terms of his signature performance, it is at best a transition. Democrats are split between believing that the Affordable Care Act was just a good start and needs significant expansion (Joe Biden) and those who believe it should be abolished and replaced by Medicare for All (most progressives left from Biden). He was hindered in his plans to make a far-reaching response to climate change, going from a grand speech in Prague in 2009 on the final abolition of nuclear weapons to an effective new Cold War with Russia with an expensive new over plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal . The unique circumstances of his multi-ethnic upbringing gave him a special ability to understand America’s racial and class differences. But these divisions only seemed to get rougher during his time. Far from changing politics, he was succeeded by Donald Trump – his opposite in terms of values, temperament and aspirations for the country and his place in the world.
It is also possible to construct an argument that Obama will be seen as a great president in due course. This perception would not be based closely on his concrete political achievements, but rather view them as a starting point for something longer-lasting and more consistent. Theodore Roosevelt is considered the pre-eminent President of the Progressive Era, although many of the actual guidelines were adopted and implemented by William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. After all, could Obama be seen as an apostle and evangelizer for a new political era driven by people who were young or not yet born during his tenure?
This era could finally find a creative middle ground in race – something more inspiring and lasting than the angry identity politics of the Trump era or the naive fiction that the United States is still far from being a color blind society. It could also build on Obama’s foiled vision to address climate change or restore US moral leadership in a turbulent world. The differentiated approach of thinking through difficult problems is shown in A promised landwhich is sometimes perceived as limited in time, could be seen as the only honest way to get involved in a complex world.
If so, there is strong reason to hope that Obama will eventually be seen as a great president. The alternative to his sane, rational, relativistic way of thinking – the alternative to the pluralistic world he seeks – is an angry world driven by people who think like absolutists, haters, and zealots.
Understanding this choice is probably one reason this fluent writer took even more time on the second volume. It must be argued more narrowly and energetically than the first. Let’s hope Obama knows exactly what is on his mind for this book and makes it clear for future generations so that its meaning cannot be confused.