'A Promised Land' review: The audacity of hope

Barack Obama plays observer, analyst and judge as he looks back at his historic time in the White House, where he chose to be a pragmatic centrist

On January 20, 2009, before his inauguration as the first African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were driven to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC, a block away from the White House. In the ‘Church of the Presidents’, as it’s often called, the Obamas had arranged a private service by their friend T.D. Jakes. The Dallas pastor, in his sermon, told the story from the Old Testament about the three men who refused to bow down to the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, because they were faithful to God. They were thrown into a blazing furnace, but emerged unscathed as God protected them. What the pastor meant was that the presidency is the furnace. “But so long as I stayed true to God and to doing what was right, I too had nothing to fear,” writes Obama in the first part of his memoirs on his presidency, A Promised Land.

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In a way, the 44th President of the U.S. has effortlessly built a narrative in this long presidential memoir, which covers only the first term in office that states he stayed true to doing right within the limitations he faced.

‘Conservative temperament’

Obama is not a revolutionary. He is what Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, called in a 2015 essay “an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament”. When he became President, the U.S. was facing immense economic and geopolitical crises. The sub-prime crisis and the subsequent recession had a huge impact on the American economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also not showing any sign of ending. Obama’s priority was to steady the ship. And in order to do that, one of the first things he did was to align himself with the Washington establishment.

He chose Clinton-era free market economists to lead his economic team, whose primary job was to take the U.S. out of the economic crisis for which the same free market policies were blamed. He chose Robert Gates, the Republican “Cold War hawk” who supported the Iraq war and was appointed by George W. Bush as Defence Secretary, to continue to run the Pentagon. Why? Because Obama wanted to end the “partisan rancour”. Recalling President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous reference to the “military industrial complex”, Obama says he wanted to win the trust of the intelligence agencies and the military because “there was a high likelihood that pushing reform might be harder for a newly elected African-American President”.

When he sees protests against Bush Jr. — who protesters called a ‘war criminal’ — it angers Obama, who thinks it’s “graceless and unnecessary”. Obama was against Bush’s war policies, but he still detached his opposition to the wars from the architect of those wars. It’s with this Obamaesque detachment he’s looking at his time in the White House — he is more of an observer, analyst and judge rather than the protagonist.

On Rahul Gandhi

When it comes to other leaders, both American and foreign, Obama is more open in letting the reader know what he thinks. “Sarah Palin had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about,” he writes. The GOP’s Mitch McConnell, he writes, perhaps jokingly, was wary of “cooperating with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama”. of Russia was “like a ward boss, except with nukes and a UN Security Council veto.” Rahul Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.”

Usually, memoirs of political leaders are focused on policy decisions and historical events. Typically, readers would also want that — details of events that shaped history. But Obama is not our regular leader. As the first African-American President of the U.S., the world’s oldest democracy that had to fight a civil war to end slavery, Obama has a special place in history, irrespective of his politics and policies. And Obama tells his story from that special place. He’s not just giving a colourless account of his White House years. He has placed himself and his family in the crucible of history to tell the story of his personal and public lives and how they evolved, often with contradictions, over the years. He travels from the family to politics, from love to diplomacy and trust to judgments in beautiful, engaging prose and anecdotes. The historical examples and parallels he invokes while talking about his own journey (“the seven-day trip of George Washington by barge and horse-drawn buggy from Virginia to New York City” or the story of the Resolute desk in the Oval Office or Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech) draws up the larger picture of the road the U.S. has taken over the centuries to reach where is it now.

Miles to go

Many of the foreign policy challenges he faced such as the Iran nuclear programme, the Arab street protests, Syrian civil war and his disastrous Libya war are not part of this memoir. He has promised a second part. But Obama has presented an impassioned defence of some of his achievements such as the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. To be sure, these were achieved despite a Republican Party that was up in arms against his presidency. But Obama’s achievements would be compared not only with those of his immediate predecessor but also to the promises he made during his campaign. He had promised change and raised passions and hopes. But in the White House, he chose to be a pragmatic centrist, dashing many of those hopes. It’s from those ashes that rose.

A Promised Land; Barack Obama, Penguin/Viking, ₹1,999.


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