Who was Barack Obama? The man himself seems troubled by this question and his notably introspective memoir offers up some surprising answers. Was he, for instance, the same person as Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president? When Obama met with Medvedev in 2009 at a dacha outside Moscow, he was surprised by how familiar it all seemed. From his reading of Russian novels, he had been expecting ‘a larger but still-rustic version of the traditional country home’. Instead he found himself on an enormous, modern estate protected by a bank of tall trees. The lives of the privileged in the 21st century do not differ from each other all that much. The evening the Obamas spent with the Medvedevs felt ‘ordinary’: ‘We could have been attending a dinner party in any well-to-do American suburb.’ They talked about Silicon Valley, their taste in music (Medvedev has a soft spot for Deep Purple), and their kids’ education. On the drive back, while Michelle slept, the American president reflected on the vagaries of fate. ‘Medvedev and I had more than a few things in common. Both of us had studied and taught law, gone on to marry and start families a few years later, dabbled in politics and been helped along by older, cagier politicians. It made me wonder how much the differences between us could be explained by our respective characters and dispositions, and how much was merely the result of our different circumstances.’ Dabbled in politics? Obama is preoccupied by the thought not merely that he could have been a different sort of politician, but that he might not really be a politician at all. When Jonathan Freedland interviewed him recently for the Guardian, he started by asking: ‘Are you a writer who became a politician, rather than a politician who’s done some writing?’ ‘Great question,’ Obama replied.
What else might he have been? A law professor, of course, but also a CEO, a diplomat, maybe even an entertainer. As well as being one of the smartest people ever to enter the White House, Obama was also one of the funniest, a natural stand-up, who even managed his turn at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, on the night he green-lighted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. ‘Cool comedian and quiet commander,’ as Adam Gopnik described him then. The idea that his gifts could have taken him in many directions gives Obama a distinct sense of unease, the feeling that nothing is ever as fixed as it seems. He has a tendency to lapse into existential reveries about the impermanence of everything. Some of this comes from his anxieties about climate change, which can appear beyond anyone’s power to control, including his own. Driving back from a visit to Mississippi in 2010 to inspect the damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he glimpses what might be coming. ‘Looking out the rain-streaked window, I wondered how long the road I was travelling would last, with its gas stations and convenience stores, before it too was swallowed by the waves.’ Sometimes, though, it is simply the Ozymandian futility of it all that consumes him. On a trip to the Pyramids in the same year, his body man Reggie Love points out an image of a man’s face carved in the stone: ‘Not the profile typical of hieroglyphics but a straight-on head shot. A long, oval face. Prominent ears sticking out like handles. A cartoon of me, somehow forged in antiquity.’ They have a good laugh about it, but Obama is not smiling on the inside. Who was this man? What were his struggles? Was he conqueror, conquered or just some random graffiti artist passing through? ‘All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I delivered, every law I passed and decision I made would soon be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.’
Yet alongside this highly developed sense of contingency there exists a very different Obama: the man of destiny. Yes, he could have been many things, but he also believes he was born for one thing in particular: to be a unifier. Who is Barack Obama? The most consistent answer that emerges from this book is that he is America. Time and again he reflects on the idea that he had a unique capacity to reconcile the different elements of American life. Not just black and white, as the son of a black father and a white mother, but also progressive and conservative, as a man of progressive beliefs and conservative temperament, and religious and secular, as a congregant of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a product of Harvard Law School. It wasn’t simply that he had experienced the variety of American life: he embodied it, so that his becoming president would be an act of healing, for the country and for himself. It is striking how often he runs these two things together. He occasionally voices his doubts that he could truly stand in for America, but what really comes through is his belief that he might.
It was one thing to have integrated my own life – to learn over time how to move seamlessly between Black and white circles, to serve as translator and bridge among family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues, making connections across an ever-expanding orbit, until I felt I could finally know the world of my grandparents and the world of a Reverend Wright as a single, unified whole. But to explain those connections to millions of strangers? To imagine that a presidential campaign, with all its noise and distortions and simplifications, could somehow cut through the hurt and fear and suspicion that had been four hundred years in the making? … Hell, I myself was too complicated, the contours of my life too messy and unfamiliar to the average American, for me to honestly expect I could pull this thing off.
He did imagine it, though. And when he did pull it off – by first beating Hillary Clinton (‘I didn’t see how she could close America’s political divide’) to the Democratic nomination and then defeating John McCain in the presidential election – he felt he had proved something both about himself and his country. ‘My having been elected president was proof that the American idea endures.’ It’s a big claim. No one else, by implication, could make it, because no one else had so much going on inside.
However, it isn’t the biggest claim that he makes. More startling is what he says at the start of the book, where he argues that the stakes of American politics are higher than anywhere else because America is everywhere else. Just as Obama’s struggles are a microcosm of America’s struggles, so the fissures and interdependencies of the United States are a microcosm of a globalised world. ‘What I can say for certain,’ Obama writes, ‘is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America – not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all humankind.’ If America fails, the world fails, since only America is trying to reconcile the full range of human experiences.
In [an interconnected world] – of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity – we will learn to live together, co-operate with one another, and recognise the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America – the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice – to see if our experiment with democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has done. To see if we can actually live up to our creed.
This isn’t exceptional America or exemplary America. This is cosmic America. Reflecting on what it would signify for a man of his background to reach the presidency, Obama concludes: ‘If we won, it would mean that I wasn’t alone in believing that the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak and we inevitably fell back into clans and tribes, lashing out against the unknown and huddling against the darkness.’ If he can heal himself, he can heal America. If he can heal America, America can heal the world. It’s as simple – or as complicated – as that.
This mix of personal uncertainty and political portentousness gives Obama’s narrative a strangely airless quality. For such an unlikely story – a boy brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, drifting in his twenties, dabbling in politics throughout his thirties, turned away from the Democratic National Convention in 2000 because no one knew who he was, yet president eight years later – it is oddly lacking in drama. There are no big plot twists on his way to the White House. A lot of the time he admits he doesn’t really know what he is doing, but at the same time the path always seems to open up before him, beckoning him on. He describes his student days as a time when he was in search of big ideas without much sense of where they would take him. He is funny about the futility of some of this book-learning. ‘Looking back,’ he writes, ‘it’s embarrassing to recognise the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was trying to get to know.’ He read Marx and Marcuse to impress a ‘long-legged socialist’, Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for a ‘smooth-skinned sociology major’, Foucault and Virginia Woolf to keep up with an ‘ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black’. It didn’t work. ‘As a strategy for picking up girls my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless. I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste relationships.’
He moved on from Continental philosophy to the study of law, but still it felt like the pay-off was somewhere out of reach. A few years later, in his late twenties and now at Harvard, he found himself watching the Berlin Wall come down and wondering what it meant, for the world and for him. ‘I had written in my journal deep into the night, my brain bursting with urgent, half-formed thoughts, uncertain of what my role might be in this great global struggle but knowing even then that the practice of law would be no more than a way station for me, that my heart would take me elsewhere.’ Half-formed, uncertain, but still sure that the biggest political event of his lifetime happening half a world away was somehow speaking to him and mapping out an alternative future. Not many people can say that. Even fewer turn out to be proved right.
When he met Michelle, his life started to take more shape, but even so he conveys just how frustrating she found his combination of dreaminess and predestination. After she asks him how they will pay the rent and raise the kids while he sorts his ideas out, he replies: ‘Magic beans, baby, magic beans.’ He wasn’t kidding. Following each setback or frustration – his hopelessly misguided first run for the US Congress in 2000, when he lost the Democratic primary by more than thirty points, or his time kicking his heels in the Illinois State Senate in Springfield, waiting for a better opportunity to come along – things right themselves without any great effort of will on his part. Obstacles fall away rather than having to be demolished. He describes it as being like ‘a running back who spots an opening at the line of scrimmage and knows that if he can get to that hole fast enough and break through there will be nothing but open field between him and the end zone’. In 2004 he runs for the US Senate, which seems like a huge leap of faith (particularly to Michelle), but the race goes his way almost by default. His Democratic rivals drop out. His Republican opponent is accused by his ex-wife of forcing her to have sex in front of strangers. He wins at a canter.
There is no doubting Obama’s extraordinary, almost uncanny political gifts, particularly when it comes to speechmaking and connecting with crowds. That summer, before he has even secured the Senate seat, he is invited to give the keynote address at the DNC, just four years after he was turned away at the door for lacking credentials. He produces a stunning performance, through which he connects his life story with the American story – his mere presence on the podium at the convention speaks, he says, to ‘the true genius of America’. Within minutes of finishing he is being talked of as a future president. When, as a first-term senator, he is prevailed on to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he knows he will have a job persuading Michelle. So he tells her frankly that she has a veto. ‘If you don’t think we should, then we won’t. Simple as that. You get the final say.’ His wife replies: ‘If that’s really true, then the answer is no. I don’t want you to run for president, at least not now.’ So what does he do? He runs anyway. Later, in front of his campaign team, Michelle asks him why. ‘You’ve told me that the only reason for you to run is if you could provide something the others can’t. Otherwise it’s not worth it … So my question is why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?’ He falls into a brief reverie – why does he want to be president? Is it vanity? Hubris? The legacy of childhood trauma? – then responds: ‘Here’s one thing I know for sure. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, 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.’ Michelle considers this for a while and then says: ‘Well, honey … that was a pretty good answer.’ Another obstacle falls away.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama was undoubtedly the underdog, at least for a while. Clinton, with her name recognition and her extensive party connections, was the clear favourite. But Obama built momentum through a combination of barnstorming speeches and a scrappy, up-by-its-bootstraps political operation, which managed to harness the novel power of social media to drum up interest and financial support. His campaign manager David Plouffe liked to say of Obama’s candidacy: ‘Walking a tightrope without a net … That’s when we are at our best.’ Yet when Obama does make a misstep – and inevitably there are plenty, from dismissing Clinton as ‘likeable enough’, to denigrating rural Republicans as ‘bitter … they cling to guns and religion,’ or simply muffing his debate lines (he accepts that he is a very up-and-down debate performer) – nothing too bad seems to happen. After he wins in Iowa, he loses dispiritingly in New Hampshire, but still the path stays open. After a journalist uncovers incendiary remarks made by Rev. Wright, Obama delivers a beautifully judged speech on race in America, in which he reconciles the experiences of his white grandmother and his former pastor. He insists he cannot disown either of them because they are both part of who he is. But when Wright repeats the offence with further comments about America as a racist nation to its core, Obama disowns him anyway. He never allows himself to believe that he is bound to win but he conducts himself throughout as someone who should win, other things being equal. It is telling that the moment he finally acknowledges the presidency is going to be his comes at an event where all he has to do is show up. When Lehman Brothers collapsed less than two months before polling day, McCain suspended his campaign and convened a meeting of political leaders in Washington to decide on a plan. Yet when President Bush turned to the Republican candidate to ask him what his plan was, McCain had nothing to say. There was no plan. Obama writes: ‘There are moments in an election battle, as in life, when all possible pathways save one are closed; when what felt like a wide distribution of probable outcomes narrows to the inevitable. This felt like one of those moments.’ Obama didn’t have a plan at that point either but he didn’t need one. He wasn’t the person who had called the meeting.
There are perhaps only two points on Obama’s road to the White House when a very different reality threatens to intrude, upending the idea that Obama’s story is destined to be one of healing. The first comes when McCain nominates Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin was an electrifying campaigner but a hopeless candidate. She turned out to be ignorant, irritable and prone to blanking in the face of even mildly hostile questioning. But she sure knew how to rouse the Republican base. Both Obama and McCain soon sense that her selection was a mistake – her deep appeal to the converted did nothing to counter the disquiet she caused among wavering voters. When she accuses Obama of being a terrorist, McCain is embarrassed and contrite. ‘I have to tell you he is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States,’ he told a rally in Michigan, to a chorus of boos. Obama never believed Palin could help defeat him. But he senses that something has shifted for the long term.
Palin’s nomination was troubling on a deeper level. I noticed from the start that her incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy … It was of course a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to block out everything: your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own sense, your eyes and ears, told you to be true.
What really stands out about Palin’s candidacy is McCain’s response to it, which in hindsight looks both noble and quaint. He could see with his own eyes that he had fucked up and he tried to acknowledge it. No one would do that now.
The other moment when an alternative path opens up comes on inauguration day. During the traditional post-inaugural lunch at the White House, Teddy Kennedy collapsed with a sudden, violent seizure. As the emergency medics took him away, with his wife looking on stricken at his side, the thoughts of the other guests were with the two of them, ‘none of us imagining the political consequences that would eventually flow from that moment’. Obama, in the early months of his presidency, briefly had a filibuster-proof cohort of sixty Democrats in the Senate. Kennedy was prime among them, 46 years into his stint serving the seemingly impregnable Democratic state of Massachusetts. But by late August Kennedy was dead. An unknown Republican, Scott Brown, won Kennedy’s old seat and Obama’s congressional buffer was gone, never to return. Kennedy’s death, and its consequences, speak to a version of American politics very different from the one conjured by Obama’s campaign speeches: the hard facts of political calculation and institutional division, the sheer, relentless grind of getting anything done in Washington, and the role that brute luck plays in how the cards eventually fall. Kennedy was one of those who had encouraged Obama to pursue healthcare reform as a priority, and the fact that Obama succeeded, despite losing Kennedy and his seat along the way, shows that he was capable of doing this kind of politics too. Obamacare eventually passed thanks to a procedural trick that allowed Obama to bypass a final Senate vote and put the bill directly to the House. Even then it was touch and go, and a lot of pork had to be squeezed into the sausage before it finally got made.
Obama accepts that ugly compromise is the price of legislative accomplishment. What he finds harder to accept is what happened, so quickly, to his promise of a new way of doing politics. From the first day of his presidency his Republican opponents were determined to give him nothing. His immediate challenge was to pass a recovery act in order to deal with the deepening economic crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Obama did what he could to reach out to Republicans in Congress, trying in his way to make good on the botched promise of McCain’s earlier attempt at bipartisanship. He hoped to peel off a few Republicans in the House. When the vote came, just nine days after his inauguration, the bill passed by 244-188. And the number of Republicans who voted for it? Zero. Already, Obama’s presidency was running on parallel tracks, and even now he doesn’t know how to reconcile them.
He writes of the political atmosphere surrounding his inauguration, when so many people were cheered by what his election seemed to signify, that it was as though ‘a collective, unspoken decision was made that for a few weeks at least, the country would take a much needed break from cynicism.’ Yet, discussing that same short period, he also says:
Looking back, it’s hard for me not to fixate on the political dynamics that unfolded in those first weeks of my presidency – how quickly Republican resistance hardened, independent of anything we said or did, and how thoroughly that resistance coloured the way the press and ultimately the public viewed the substance of our actions. After all, those dynamics set the course for so much of what happened in the months and years that followed, a cleaving of America’s political sensibilities that we are still dealing with a decade later.
How to square the country’s break from cynicism with the triumph of cynicism that took place at precisely the same time? One could say that it was the politicians who were cynical, and the wider public who shared Obama’s desire for something different. But it was the public who had elected those politicians. Maybe, in the end, there was no new way of doing politics. That was just talk, which served its purpose in getting Obama elected. It left the institutional reality of American political life completely untouched.
Much of Obama’s first two years in office was spent fire-fighting the financial crisis. He acknowledges his own limitations, including a deep aversion to any measures that would, as he puts it, do ‘violence to the social order’. Obama is much more alive to the symbolism of healing gestures than punitive ones. He shied away from any attempt to stretch the rules to ensure that some bankers went to jail. Given how angry people were about having to bail out the institutions that had landed them in this mess, that was probably a mistake. Obama’s focus was on technical fixes, and he hired a bunch of former bankers to provide them. At the same time, he understood full well that fire-fighting wasn’t going to be enough. The failings of the American economy were entrenched and they could only be resolved in the long term by redressing the balance of bargaining power between capital and labour.
In this new, winner-take-all economy, those controlling capital or possessing specialised, high-demand skills – whether tech entrepreneurs, hedge fund managers, LeBron James or Jerry Seinfeld – could leverage their assets, market globally, and amass more wealth than any group in human history. But for ordinary workers, capital mobility and automation meant an ever-weakening bargaining position. Manufacturing towns lost their lifeblood. Low inflation and cheap flat-screen TVs couldn’t compensate for layoffs, fewer hours and temp work, stagnant wages and fewer benefits, especially when both healthcare and education costs (two sectors less subject to cost-saving automation) kept soaring.
These problems are structural and they have deep roots. Obama says that one of his missions as president was to breathe new life into some of the institutions whose decline had exacerbated this growing inequality, including public schools and state universities, labour unions, and government agencies. What he doesn’t say is that this mission was at odds with the political rhetoric on which he built his campaign. After all, that sort of institutional reform has nothing to do with his life story or his personal example. He had no direct experience of any of these things – not trade unions, not public schools, not government work. He had been a community organiser in Chicago but gave it up when he got frustrated by how little difference he could make personally. He wanted to leverage his unique skill set. Like Jerry Seinfeld and LeBron James, Obama exemplifies what can be done by super-talented individuals in a winner-take-all world. He won and did indeed take it all, including the $65 million he and Michelle received in a package deal that has produced this book. More power to him. But his example is not a recipe for structural change. Quite the contrary.
In recounting his life story Obama has little to say about the political divide that his own experiences could do nothing to bridge. Though by no means born to privilege, his grandparents managed to send him and his sister to what he calls ‘private schools and fancy colleges’. Later, he won a place at Harvard Law School. He belongs squarely in the educated elite. It is notable that almost the only time his civic mask slips in this book is when he talks about people who overvalue intellectual heft and academic qualifications: ‘Maybe because of my own background in legal and academic circles … I’d met my share of highly credentialed, high-IQ morons.’ He understands how readily education can become a marker of entitlement rather than an engine of progress. He worries that too many Americans are being left out of the rewards of the knowledge economy. But he can’t speak to their lived experience. The mistake that still nags at him more than ten years after he made it is his passing comment about rural, low-paid Americans clinging to their religion and their guns. He wishes he could take it back. He tells us the words he wishes he’d used instead.
‘So it’s not surprising then that they get frustrated,’ I would say in my revised version, ‘and they look to the way of life and traditions that have been constants in their lives, whether it’s their faith, or hunting, or blue-collar work, or more traditional notions of value and community. And when Republicans tell them we Democrats despise these things – or when we give these folks reason to think that we do – then the best policies in the world don’t matter to them.’
Is this so much better? It has the condescension of someone trying not to be condescending, as he reaches for a softer way of describing religion and guns (faith and hunting), and takes for granted that his side has the best policies, even though he knows that policies aren’t enough. He can talk about these people but he can’t talk to them. He still sounds like he comes from another world. That isn’t his fault – he does. But it suggests that he may have overstated the extent to which he could stand in for America. Moreover, he shares the tendency of his high-IQ tribe to let his own side off the hook when he wants to. He acknowledges that however well he understood the principles of workplace equality, he struggled with them in practice. ‘As the first African American president, I felt a particular obligation to model an inclusive workplace. Still, I tended to discount the role that race and gender – as opposed to the friction that typically arises when you get a group of stressed-out, type-A high-achievers confined in close quarters – actually played in office dynamics.’ That said, he continues to insist that his guys were all OK. Men like his chief strategist David Axelrod and his press secretary Robert Gibbs, along with his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and economic adviser Larry Summers, both of whom were notoriously abrasive. ‘Knowing them as well as I did, I felt that as much as any of us growing up in America can be free of bias, they passed the test.’ Really? These men were his colleagues as well as his type – smart, analytical, no bullshit, no game-playing. The idea that their ingrained intolerance was the tolerable kind is exactly what you’d expect from someone who saw the world like they did. For others, it was just bullying.
Obama remains a deeply attractive politician. It is impossible to imagine him bullying anyone, even if he sometimes turned a blind eye to it in others. His innate dignity and his decency shine through this book. Yet it feels throughout as though something is missing. It’s the same thing that Obama describes as missing from the example of the man who helped bring him into politics, Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington. Obama arrived in Chicago halfway through Washington’s first term. Washington had pulled off a thrilling victory to become mayor, but two years later he was stymied by racial factionalism, with old-school white aldermen on the council blocking his every move. It took a federal court redrawing the city’s gerrymandered electoral map to break the deadlock. But it came too late for Washington, who died of a heart attack early in his second term. Ultimately, Richard Daley, son of the former mayor and, as Obama calls him, a ‘scion of the old order’, reclaimed the throne. So what lessons did Obama take from Washington’s initial triumph and ultimate failure? ‘I saw how the tremendous energy of the movement couldn’t be sustained without structure, skills and organisation in government. I saw how a political campaign based on racial redress, no matter how reasonable, generated fear and backlash and ultimately placed limits on progress. And in the rapid collapse of Harold’s coalition after his death, I saw the danger of relying on a single charismatic individual to bring about change.’ Some of Obama’s caution about racial politics makes sense in the light of this, including over the past year, as he engineered the nomination of Joe Biden for president and warned the Democratic Party, particularly its younger wing, against over-committing to the Black Lives Matter agenda. But what about the other side of the equation, the need to get beyond a reliance on one person to bring about change? How does that square with the premise of this book, that only Obama could bridge America’s divides?
What’s missing is a clear-eyed account of the institutional reforms that are needed as well. There is no practical remedy in this book for the distortions of the American political system. It is telling that the subject of gerrymandering only really comes up when Obama analyses what went wrong with his first attempt to run for Congress. He concluded that his style of politics wasn’t suited to a congressional race. ‘The problem was structural, a matter of how district lines were drawn: in an overwhelmingly Black district like the one I lived in, in a community that had long been battered by discrimination and neglect, the test for politicians would more often than not be defined in racial terms, just as it was in many white, rural districts that were left behind.’ Bridge-building was too hard when communities were divided from each other by the arbitrary lines created by politicians. ‘To really shake things up, I realised, I needed to speak to and for the widest possible audience.’ For Obama, political progress required him to bypass a gerrymandered system rather than to remedy it. One of the biggest indictments of the Obama years is that while he was speaking to the widest possible audience, local politics got away from his party. In 2009 Democrats controlled both chambers in 27 state legislatures. Eight years later that number was down to 13. Over the same period the Democratic Party lost a total of 13 state governorships and 816 state legislative seats. At the end of Obama’s time in office the system was as divided, and as hard to reform, as it has ever been. After four years of Trump – and the down-ballot successes for so many Republicans even as their presidential candidate was defeated in November – it is probably even worse. This is not Obama’s fault. But it is a flaw in his conception of the way to achieve lasting political change.
Just as Obama was not, in the end, America, so America is not the world. His description of international politics also runs on parallel tracks. On the one hand, there are his personal experiences of speaking to and for many international audiences, from Berlin to Cairo, from Riyadh to Tokyo, most of them charmed by him, plenty of them inspired. The symbolism of having this man as president of the United States was lost on almost no one. On the other hand, there are the hard realities of power politics. The most important international relationship of the 21st century, between the US and China, resembles the ongoing contest of attrition between Democrats and Republicans much more than it does a cosmic coming together of clans and tribes. China’s holding of more than $700 billion in US debt gave it leverage over America’s economic fortunes. Its ability to undercut American manufacturing worsened the economic fortunes of many individual Americans. For all his hopes that growing Chinese prosperity would integrate the country into the society of nations, Obama understood that there was a zero-sum aspect to China-US relations as well. ‘The fact remained that China’s gaming of the international trading system had too often come at America’s expense. Automation and advanced robotics may have been the bigger culprit in the decline of US manufacturing jobs but Chinese practices – with the help of outsourcing – had accelerated these losses.’ Obama describes the challenge of China policy as devising ‘a strategy to thread the needle between too tough and not tough enough’. That doesn’t sound very much like the running back finding a hole at the line of scrimmage and an open field beyond.
A Promised Land ends on a surprisingly downbeat note. The final chapter describes the nerve-wracking mission to identify and then kill bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama’s steady nerve and sound judgment were crucial to its success. His making good on a much derided campaign promise – that if he had bin Laden in his sights within Pakistani territory, and the Pakistani government was unwilling or unable to capture or kill him, he would take the shot – did as much as anything to ensure Obama’s re-election. But as crowds poured onto the streets the night he announced bin Laden’s death, shouting ‘USA, USA’, the president was less than euphoric.
The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission to Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care. I knew that even my own staff would dismiss these notions as utopian. And the fact that this was the case, the fact that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies, I took as a measure of how far my presidency fell short of what I wanted it to be – and how much work I had left to do.
How much of that work he believes he got done will be the subject of the next volume, which will also have to grapple with the fact that he ended up bequeathing the government of the United States to the man he had taunted in his performance to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the evening before the bin Laden raid. Donald Trump was in the room as Obama mocked his ‘credentials and breadth of experience’ as the host of Celebrity Apprentice and congratulated him on the way he’d handled the fact that ‘at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks … These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir, well handled.’ The Washington establishment laughed uproariously. Trump sat there stony-faced, plotting revenge.
As I came to the end of this book I was bothered by which world leader Obama reminded me of. Not Medvedev for sure. Then I realised: it was David Cameron, whose recent memoir, also overlong, also packed with detailed accounts of tough policy choices, was also imbued with a rhetoric of hope. But lurking in the background of both, waiting to spoil the party in the end, is the place where hope went to die – Brexit for Cameron, Trump for Obama. In both cases, the climax of the story casts a shadow over the body of the tale. These memoirs feel too long partly because they are trying to put off what’s coming. And with Obama we still have another book to go.
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