JANUARY 1, 2021
BARACK OBAMA IN THE WHITE HOUSE was like Elvis drafted in the Army: both were vibrant men who had to operate with extreme limitations on their public selves.
Because Elvis did not want to appear to be seeking special treatment, he was deprived of the soldier’s universal right to complain — about the food, a hard-assed sergeant, a crummy work detail, anything. In A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s projected two-volume presidential memoirs, we are reminded again and again — and not by the author, because some part of him would consider it unseemly — that the one thing the first African American president could not do was appear to be “too Black.”
Think of the weird reaction to Obama’s compassionate remark after the killing of Trayvon Martin: “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” The conservative political theorist Abigail Thernstrom, who was often sought out for her opinion on race relations (and was always wrong) called Obama’s words “another manifestation of the president’s well-known narcissism: No matter what the situation may be, it’s all about him.”
When the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home by the Cambridge police after being put through the indignity of having to prove it was his home, Obama said the cops had “acted stupidly.” Predictably, he was accused of insulting the police — who deserved to be insulted in this instance — and coming down automatically on the side of Black people.
For the half of the United States who underwent a nervous breakdown at the reality of a Black man becoming president, Obama might as well have been Huey Newton holding a rifle. And lest we think that it was only the overt white supremacists Obama was up against, it also became increasingly clear as his presidency went on that many of those who supported him expected him to be a firebrand on every issue instead of the ethical pragmatist they voted for — and that they were willing to label him a sellout if he wasn’t.
“Certainly,” the African American essayist and novelist Albert Murray had written in his book The Omni-Americans, “the struggle for political and social liberty is nothing if not a quest for freedom to choose one’s own way or style of life.” That’s the freedom that was only partially open to Obama, caught as he was between two sets of reactionaries: the all too visible bigots on the right and the disappointed leftists who didn’t take into account what the mere fact of Obama meant to their Black fellow Americans.
The frustration of those constraints emerges stealthily in A Promised Land. You don’t read a presidential memoir for psychobiography, of course. You read it for the principal player’s firsthand account of the initiatives that they advanced, the catastrophes that arose, a reasonable toting up of accomplishments and failures. You expect behind-the-scenes glimpses and candor but few glimpses into a soul.
For much of its 701 pages of text, A Promised Land sticks to that pattern, covering the years from Obama’s initial post-law-school forays into politics to the end of his first term in the White House. As such, it can be predictable: he introduces each of the players with a brief explication of their résumé and a thumbnail sketch of their character. And it can be tedious in the style of presidential memoirs: he explains each piece of legislation in terms of its aims and outlines its passage by detailing the compromises undertaken to advance it.
With only a few exceptions, Obama does a convincing job defending his record. Detailing how he tried to abolish Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which prevented gay people from serving openly in the military, he reveals that he made something of the same mistake Bill Clinton did in establishing the rule — not confronting the military officials who opposed him and asking them what part of commander-in-chief they didn’t understand. And while I don’t doubt that halting deportations of undocumented citizens would have damaged future immigration reform by providing “ammunition to critics who claimed that Democrats weren’t willing to enforce existing immigration laws,” the immediate effect of the deportations was to sacrifice real people to possible future benefit, an instance where Obama’s pragmatism seems not just shortsighted but also cold.
If A Promised Land is merely a recitation of the facts and Obama’s predictable defense of his choices, why read it? The answer is for the shadow book lurking beneath, one that reveals itself through stray words, stray remarks, fleeting expressions of pleasure or irritation. (My favorite, on Lindsey Graham: “You know how in the spy thriller or the heist movie, you’re introduced to the crew at the beginning? Lindsey’s the guy who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.”)
A Promised Land is actually a book about what it means to be the smartest guy in the room and Black, and thus, always having to cover up and effect the necessary public air of humility.
That’s not to say that Obama’s humility is an affectation, or that he is not comfortable being himself. His polish, his assurance, what John Wayne meant in Rio Bravo when he said, “I’d say he so’s good, he doesn’t feel he has to prove it,” you just know that all of this is part of what deranges the people who hate him. Because he is not an arrogant man. Throughout the book, he constantly refers to the lessons taught by his mother and grandparents, and it’s clear he feels those lessons more keenly because they did not survive to see his success, his grandmother dying only eight days before the election.
Obama is sharply aware of the Black Americans who were his forebears, often walking more dangerous paths than the ones he has trod. You don’t find the same personal investment — how could there be? — when Obama writes of the contributions of cabinet members and advisors.
The self-portrait that emerges in A Promised Land, especially the character trait that is both credit and flaw, is his laudable and damnable determination to stick to reason. “I was convinced,” he writes of his attempts to sell the Affordable Care Act, “that the logic of healthcare reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support.”
It must be particularly hard for someone who believed in a collective victory over entrenched racism to face the illogic that hijacked a large swath of the American public. Donald Trump starts hovering around the final pages of the book like a melanoma. But Obama had seen what Trump represented before he was even elected. Greil Marcus lays it out in his book Under the Red White and Blue. Recall the sainted John McCain’s early version of birtherism, which he asked throughout the campaign: “What do we really know about this man?” “[B]y election day,” Marcus writes, “Republican rallies had become a torrent of hate, with crowds shouting ‘Kill him!’ and ‘Traitor!’ at the mention of his name.”
Someone had to be a voice of reason in a country where a large part of the electorate was ready to believe that a government health-care program meant death panels for the elderly. A Promised Land makes a strong case for politics as the art of the possible — precisely the case that progressives don’t want to hear. But it also shows Obama continuing to act as if he could reasonably negotiate with people, namely the GOP, who had abandoned reason, who were determined to deny him any victory, no matter how beneficial it might be, simply to hold on to their power and appease the white supremacist elements of their base.
Obama’s position was akin to someone practicing nonviolent resistance in a totalitarian state. Gandhi and King had a free press to report their trials, and their opponents, no matter their flaws, were democratic states. Obama was up against a party that believed everything but itself was illegitimate. How do you negotiate with that? You can’t negotiate with the likes of Mitch McConnell, as fully a nihilistic thug as has ever held public office in the United States.
And yet the ways in which Obama’s dedication to reason played him wrong are nothing next to the shortsightedness that has always undervalued him. Early on, he writes movingly about loving his country while being constantly aware of how it fell short of its ideals. “‘Dream on, Barack,’ is how those arguments with my college friends would usually end, as some smug bastard dropped a newspaper in front of me, its headlines trumpeting the U.S. invasion of Grenada or cuts in the school lunch program or some other disheartening news. ‘Sorry, but that’s your America.’” It’s easy to see who your enemies are. The ones who are ostensibly on your side, though, the ones more motivated by the satisfaction of being superior than the belief in positive change? They represent the most insidious challenge that Obama writes about here.
There is at the heart of progressive politics an unacknowledged and crippling contradiction: you cannot expect to enact fundamental change when you refuse to believe that individuals are capable of change. Nearly every semester at the well-heeled university where I teach in New York City, I encounter a student who proudly spouts some variation of “The American dream is a lie.” I have to remind the student that in order for it be a lie it would have to be called “the American reality.” I have to remind these students that, as in the fourth verse of “America the Beautiful,” which begins, “O beautiful, for patriot’s dream,” we are talking about a striving, not an accomplishment.
This is what I find so moving about A Promised Land, a book animated by its author’s glorious phrase, “An America that could explain me.” No one who hopes to effect any kind of positive change in this country is worth a damn without understanding the United States as both idea and promise, rather than dismissively rejecting either.
The gift of the book is not just that he shows ease in himself (he refers to his relationship with his wife as one of being “lovers,” a word that’s touching in its frankness and unimaginable from any other president), but also that his example of that ease and grace holds out the same possibility for all of us. And yet, because Obama was a transformative president, one who opened up new possibilities and, through no fault of his own, gave new life to the virulence that has always worked to shut down those possibilities, A Promised Land suggests that his tempered idealism may not be enough for the battle that lies ahead.
Healing and bipartisanship and cooperation, the conciliatory public words that Joe Biden is now speaking, are necessary ones in the aftermath of a bitter election. But there are levels of stupidity and ignorance and bigotry that no democracy can withstand, and this is what will complicate the work of any president trying to build on the legacy of Barack Obama. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson quotes Taylor Branch, the author of the magisterial Martin Luther King Jr. biography America in the King Years. “The real question,” Branch asks, “would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” At last count, the answer is 74,222,958.