Shipping delays mean bookstores are placing massive one-off orders rather than sitting back to see what sells. They’ve gone huge on Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land – there are probably enough copies in the country to dam Cook Strait. Luckily, Danyl Mclauchlan writes, it is in fact good.
I somehow forgot that Obama could write. Before he was a community organiser or law professor or politician or progressive icon, Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, a book about his childhood, his family, his background and path to becoming the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Unlike almost every other book by a politician it was thoughtful and well written. A Promised Land – volume one of his two-volume memoir – has some fine writing in it but it’s a larger, messier, more complicated work. He’s trying to do more with this book. It has multiple, sometimes conflicting strategic goals.
It starts and ends as a political memoir. It moves briefly over his early life, telescoping out the closer he gets to the presidency, zooming in even further to the policy detail once he’s there. It’s candid; there’s plenty of failure, self-reflection, cynicism, a lot of smoking and swearing. Inevitably there are many soaring, lyrical passages about hope and dawn and America and the quality of light in the Oval Office, Sasha and Malia’s angelic smiles, the wrinkled faces of the simple, decent honest hardworking folk who line the roads and chapters of this book, and dare to dream of a better tomorrow. It ends in 2011 with the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US special forces.
Inevitably Obama wants to relitigate a few things; mostly the fact that he was elected in the first place. It does sometimes feel like his achievement has been discounted, especially by the left; that he’s become the hope and change guy that didn’t change anything. But becoming the first Black president of the US was, Obama reminds us, a very big deal, and it was really fucking hard. Black leaders in the south were reluctant to endorse him because if he were somehow elected they had no doubt he’d be assassinated. The secret service gave him early and unprecedented levels of protection because the level of threat directed towards him was unlike anything they’d ever seen.
Hillary Clinton continued to campaign against Obama for months after he’d obviously won the Democratic nomination, pounding him with negative ads, reinventing herself as the candidate of gun rights and the white working class, a group of voters who would definitely vote for her, she assured her party, but never Obama. And after Clinton he had to defeat John McCain, a beloved war hero that the media worshipped as a political maverick. And when he won he had to deal with two unwinnable wars and a global economy on the verge of a catastrophic depression. After Trump it might seem like literally anyone can become president, but Obama wants to remind us that his victory was historic and hard won, dammit.
Trump himself makes a brief appearance towards the end of the book as the herald of the birther movement, insisting Obama was a secret Kenyan Muslim. Obama seems to see Trump as a signifier of something deeper, a dramatic ideological shift that’s been happening inside the Republican party for years, and which is still going on. He attributes its escalation to John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 campaign, accelerating the GOP’s transformation from a pro-business conservative/libertarian coalition towards a radical, nihilist party that now exists purely to oppose the government, even when it is the government.
Obama is good on the strangeness of being president. After the election every street he drove down was suddenly empty, with all the connecting roads closed off behind concrete barricades; his car was bomb-proofed and utterly silent; going to his old gym meant entering a cleared-out building with snipers covering the rooftops; his secret service codename was “Renegade”, so an armed agent would report into a radio “Renegade to secondary hold”, every time he went to the toilet.
A Promised Land is also a traditional history of the Obama presidency. So every now and then we jump out of the narrative to get an overview of the global financial crisis, or the Israel-Palestine conflict; potted biographies of his major appointments, his personal advisors and staff, other heads of state. An overview of the US healthcare system as a prelude to the saga of Obamacare. A history of the senate filibuster.
But Obama doesn’t just write a history; he wants to give readers his impression of what it’s like to be president. This perspective is surprisingly bleak. The reality of political leadership, he explains, is that you spend 90% of your time dealing with problems you’ve inherited or new crises you haven’t anticipated. The choices you’re offered when deciding what to do are always terrible because if they aren’t then the problem you’re confronted with will have been solved by someone else, further down the chain. You’re always dealing with complex challenges, acting on incomplete information, trying to predict uncertain outcomes. If you handle those catastrophes well – which you do by listening to smart people and using a good process to reach decisions – you can create some space to make the kind of change you went into politics for.
But that change will be intensely contested. Obama isn’t exactly happy with Obamacare. But every other Democratic president in the last hundred years had tried and failed to pass a universal healthcare package, and his administration extended healthcare to an additional twenty million people, most of them poor. It wasn’t revolutionary change, but one of the main messages of Obama’s book is that if you try for revolutionary change you’ll probably just fuck everything up and make things worse for the people you’re trying to help.
Back in 1995 the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote Achieving Our Country, a book about the history of left-wing politics in the US. Rorty divided the post-1960s US left into two broad categories. There’s the cultural left: radical, intellectual, mostly campus-based, disciples of Marx and Foucault (both of whom Obama dismisses at the beginning of his book, explaining that he read them at college to impress girls and they weren’t even useful for that).
And then there’s the progressive or reformist left: centrist and incrementalist, rooted in community activism and electoral politics. Both of these tendencies hate each other. The cultural left regard progressives as collaborators and sellouts; they’re just after power, they never solve the real, deep problems of their society, which you can only do with revolutionary change, dismantling the oppressive and corrupt status quo and starting again. The progressives regard the academics and intellectuals of the cultural left as frauds: they’ve found a way to occupy a comfortable, high status position within their society while pretending to be its victims, critiquing everything from a radical yet highly abstract perspective, so that they always occupy the moral and intellectual high ground but never help anyone or change anything.
Obama is here to advocate for the incrementalist, progressive left perspective, and he does this by considering the cultural left critiques of his presidency: why didn’t he nationalise Wall Street? Immediately withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan? Outlaw drone strikes? Introduce Medicare For All? Declare open borders? He takes us through the constraints and complexities around these issues, the successes and the failures. He has some regrets – he wishes he abolished the filibuster. But his reformist, incrementalist instincts are founded in a conception of US exceptionalism in which America is an aspiration as much as an actual nation; “a promised land” or, as Rorty put it “a country that is not yet achieved”. And it can’t be achieved by tearing it all down; instead you have to remind the nation that it was founded on ideals it has failed to live up to, and build a political coalition around those aspirations and work towards them. You never reach the promised land: it’s a fantasy, just like the post-revolutionary utopia, but you can use the fantasy to inspire hope and acquire political power, and use it to deliver real change.
Obama describes a scene that took place during the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination: he’d just won the North Carolina primary, and at the victory party his campaign supporters, Black and white, linked arms and chanted, “Race doesn’t matter”. But, Obama reflected, just across the road was the North Carolina state building with the confederate flag “and all that it stood for” flying above it. Race still mattered plenty. But to do something about it he needed to build a political movement – his famous rainbow coalition – that pretended it didn’t.
A Promised Land seems to have been written for subsequent iterations of Obama: young intellectuals, possibly Black, probably nonwhite, who are smart and politically aware and are wondering what to do with their lives. Maybe it’s the book about politics Obama wishes he’d read when he was starting out and wondering: how do I remake the world? His answer is that you can’t. But you can make a difference, and if you’re ambitious enough you’ll go into politics anyway, and you need to wed your ambition to something more meaningful, a vision greater than yourself, otherwise the corrupt and degrading nature of the enterprise will consume you.
Is Obama’s model of progressive politics based on American exceptionalism still viable? After Donald Trump was elected in 2016 a passage from Achieving our Country went viral. Back in 1995 Rorty prophesied:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots … once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
All the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
The strongman showed up, just as Rorty predicted (although he was a weaker, lazier, more ridiculous strongman than anyone could have imagined; the Republican party capitulated to him anyway). He wasn’t a reaction against the cultural left, though. He was a reaction against Obama, the epitome of Rorty’s pragmatic, nationalistic progressive movement.
There’s been a rare consensus across the left that Trump is a manifestation of racism, a white supremacist backlash against the first Black president. And that seemed to make sense: Trump is very racist. But were all those white working class voters in the post-industrial midwest, who supported Obama for eight years and then switched to Trump in 2016, thus swinging the election, really white supremacists? Exit polls from the 2020 election suggested that Joe Biden won a larger number of high income white evangelical voters than previous Democrats, while losing Black and Hispanic voters to the Republican party.
Race still matters, but something other than race is shifting the boundaries of US politics in a way that makes it hard to see how Obama’s progressive, rainbow coalition can remain viable. And Republican voters still overwhelmingly support Trump, in the face of his botched, deranged attempt to steal the 2020 election. How credible is a politics based on American ideals and American exceptionalism when at least half the country holds those ideals in contempt? How can that country resist a future strongman of even average competence, given the success enjoyed by one as mediocre as Trump? Joe Biden – Obama’s brother, as he calls him – might be the new president, but Obama’s promised land now feels very distant.