Let me stipulate from the beginning that A Promised Land is not a revelatory book like Dreams from my Father, a book Barack Obama wrote when he had no idea he would be President of the United States one day, when he was finishing figuring out who he was and why anyone who didn’t know him personally might be interested in his life, a book he wrote in part to explain himself to himself, and in part to impress Michelle. Let me also stipulate that A Promised Land is not as relatable as Becoming, not a finely honed work executed with the utmost craftsmanship, designed to show how an ordinary girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow into an extraordinary woman, and to make millions of readers feel they knew Michelle Obama as well as they knew their best friends, and incidentally to think she could easily become a good friend too. As the first half of a presidential memoir, A Promised Land is doing something different from either of those books. It lays out how Barack Obama sees his campaign and his time in office. The constitutional lawyer, the policy maven, and the gifted communicator all work together to make the case for the roads he took, the choices he made, the way that he and his team handled the challenges and crises that inevitably arose.
Obama spells out his goals for the book in the second paragraph of the preface. “First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office.” That includes not just the actions that he and his team took, but the contexts in which they were working, the times in which they were living. “Where possible, I wanted to offers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the president is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screw-ups, and small triumphs as the rest of their fellow citizens.” With these first two, I think he succeeds. “Finally, I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in … and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.” (pp. xiii–xiv) I’m less certain about that last, but I no longer fit the inspirable young people demographic and thus may not be the best judge.
A Promised Land is never less than elegantly readable, but there is a lot of it (700 page of main text) and it is very Obama: clear, earnest, sometimes funny, and given to both tripartite rhetoric and finely nuanced distinctions. The book begins with a short version of his life growing up, a story he has told better in Dreams from My Father and that David Remnick has told better in The Bridge. A Promised Land ends with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, as seen from the White House. Obama divides the pages in between into seven parts. “The Bet” is that a first-term Senator with a funny name should run for president. Part two, “Yes We Can” covers the campaign; “Renegade” (the title comes from his Secret Service code name) details the first months of Obama’s presidency. Part four, “The Good Fight,” concentrates on domestic matters in the first years, particularly on rescuing the economy from the financial crisis of 2008 and on gaining passage of the Affordable Care Act. In “The World As It Is,” he deals with the world, as it is, and he tells of his efforts to make it more like he would want it to be. “In the Barrel” gives a sense of what a presidency is like away from its signature policies and crucial events. The sixth part of the book shows some of the thousands of items that are life-defining for the people involved but just part of the steady fire hose of decisions that land in the Oval Office. The final part of A Promised Land, “On the High Wire” begins with the Obama administration and the rest of the Democrats picking themselves up from the beating they took in the 2010 elections. It focuses again on international affairs, with special attention to the wider Middle East. It closes with the raid on bin Laden. Success there sets up the forthcoming second part of Obama’s presidential memoirs. The re-election campaign would essentially be waged on two achievements: General Motors (standing for the economy as a whole) was alive and Osama bin Laden was dead. Neither of those would have been a certainty under a Republican administration, or so the 2012 Obama campaign would argue.
One of the theoretical advantages of a presidential memoir is that the former chief magistrate can offer a perspective that nobody else has, and can relate anecdotes that would otherwise never come to light. One of the advantages of having a writer who has been president is that he can tell those tales well. Obama delivers on both counts, starting with the decision of whether or not to run for the presidency at all. He was new in the Senate, he was relatively young, he knew the dangers of appearing to be grabbing for too much too soon. Further, earlier in Obama’s career he had tried to jump ahead in the business of politics by unseating an incumbent Congressman. He had lost by 30 points. “Better to hold off, I told myself [in 2006]. Pay dues, collect chits, wait my turn.” (p. 67) Then Harry Reid, who was the Democratic leader in the Senate at that time, asked Obama to stop by his office one day.
“Let me get to the point,” Harry said, as if he were known for small talk. “We’ve got a lot of people in our caucus planning to run for president. I can hardly count them all. And they’re good people, Barack, so I can’t be out there publicly, taking sides…”
“Listen, Harry, just so you know, I’m not—”
“But,” he said, cutting me off, “I think you need to consider running this cycle. I know you’ve said you wouldn’t do it. And sure, a lot of people will say you need more experience. But let me tell you something. Ten years in the Senate won’t make you a better president. You get people motivated, especially young people, minorities, even middle-of-the-road white people. That’s different, you see. People are looking for something different. Sure, it will be hard, but I think you can win. Schumer thinks so too.”
He stood up and headed toward the door, making it clear the meeting was over. “Well, that’s all I wanted to tell you. So think about it, okay?” (p. 67)
One-on-one conversations with other Senators who were not themselves planning on running showed that Reid was not alone in his assessment. Obama was thinking all of this over, talking it through with a long-time aide. “‘You need to talk to [Ted] Kennedy,’ [the aide] said. ‘He knows all the players. He’s run himself. He’ll give you some perspective. And at the very least, he’ll tell you if he plans to support anyone else.'” (p. 68)
In contrast to Reid, the talk with Kennedy is long and discursive, featuring tales and reminiscences, reflections, tangents.
“So…” he finally said, “I hear there’s talk of you running for president.”
I told him it was unlikely, but that I nevertheless wanted his counsel.
“Yes, well, who was it who said there are one hundred senators who look in the mirror and see a president?” Teddy chuckled to himself. “They ask, ‘Do I have what it takes?’ Jack, Bobby, me too, long ago. It didn’t go as planned, but things work out in their own way, I suppose…”
He trailed off, lost in his thoughts. Watching him, I wondered how he took the measure of his own life, and his brothers’ lives, the terrible price each one of them had paid in pursuit of a dream. Then, just as suddenly, he was back, his deep blue eyes fixed on mine, all business.
“I won’t be wading in early,” Teddy said. “Too many friends. But I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think that you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.” (p. 69)
Having seized the chance, Obama had to do the work to make it more than just a chance. In A Promised Land he gives readers a combination of perspective from the other side of two terms and what it felt like in 2008. “I have to remind myself that nothing felt easy or predestined at the time, that again and again it felt as if our campaign would go entirely off the rails, and that, at the outset, it seemed not just to me but to many who were paying attention that I wasn’t a particularly good candidate.” (p. 82) The very excitement that made people think that the skinny young first-term Senator could be president meant that “From day one, it felt like the middle of Times Square, and under the glare of the spotlight my inexperience showed.”
Massively more people pay attention to a presidential campaign than to a Senate campaign, and many of those have their own agendas. Opposing campaigns will feed tidbits to friendly reporters. The press itself is a player, with some journalists (Bob Woodward, for example) believing they are as big as any president. Organized constituencies scrutinize every utterance to try to discern a potential president’s views. Often enough, they will supply the words in hopes of locking someone in on the particular side of a contentious issue. And that’s all apart from the physical challenge that a presidential campaign presents. Obama talks about that from the candidate’s perspective.
Once the adrenaline of the announcement wore off, the sheer magnitude of the grind now before me struck with full force.
And it was a grind. When not in Washington for Senate business, I soon found myself in Iowa or one of the early states, putting in sixteen-hour days, six and a half days a week—sleeping in a Hampton Inn or a Holiday Inn or an AmercInn or a Super 8. I’d wake up after five or six hours and try to squeeze in a workout at whatever facility we could find (the old treadmill in the back of a tanning salon was memorable), before packing up my clothes and gulping down a haphazard breakfast, before hopping down into a van and making fundraising calls on the way to the first town hall meeting of the day; before interviews with the local paper or news station, and maybe a swing by a local eatery to shake hands; before hopping back in the van to dial for more dollars. I’d repeat this three or four times, with a cold sandwich or a salad wedged in there somewhere, before finally staggering into another motel around nine p.m., trying to catch Michelle and the girls by phone before they went to bed, before reading the next day’s briefing materials, the binder gradually slipping out of my hands as exhaustion knocked me out.
And that’s not even counting the flights to New York or L.A. or Chicago or Dallas for fundraisers. It was a life of not glamour but monotony, and the prospect of eighteen continuous months of it quickly wore down my spirit. I’d staked my claim in the presidential race, involved a big team of people, begged strangers for money, and propagated a vision I believed in. But I missed my wife. I missed my kids. I missed my bed, a consistent shower, sitting at a proper table for a proper meal. I missed not having to say the exact same thing the exact same way five or six or seven times a day. (pp. 83–84)
In The Gatekeepers, a book about presidential chiefs of staff, the author notes that each president needs a particular kind of down time that recharges him, that enables him to discharge his public duties in the best way possible. Obama is a family man. Michelle Obama also writes about how the campaign needs to support the family if Barack is going to be as effective as everyone thinks he can be. And both he and the campaign gained in effectiveness as time wore on. Obama lets readers see moments that lightened the load of work, heightened the competitiveness involved, and show the insights he gained—show them in a way that may make his audience into better citizens.
Once we played [basketball against] a group of New Hampshire firefighters from whom I was trying to secure an endorsement. They were standard weekend warriors, a bit younger than me but in worse shape. After the first three times Reggie [Love, Obama’s “body man”] stile the ball down the floor and went in for thunderous dunks, I called a time-out.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You understand that I’m trying to get their support, right?”
Reggie looked at me in disbelief. “You want us to lose to these stiffs?”
I thought for a second.
“Nah,” I said. “I wouldn’t go that far. Just keep it close enough that they’re not too pissed.” (pp. 85–86)
The firefighters not only get to remember they played basketball with a future president, they think they came this close to beating him. That’s some retail politics. And they probably wouldn’t have respected a presidential candidate who couldn’t beat them. People want their leaders to be human but also exceptional.
Spending time with Reggie, Marvin [Nicholson, trip director], and [communications director Robert] Gibbs, I found respite from the pressures of the campaign, a small sphere where I wasn’t a candidate or a symbol or a generational voice or even a boss, but rather just one of the guys. Which, as I slogged through those early months, felt more valuable than any pep talk. Gibbs did try to go the pep-talk route with me at one point … He told me that I needed to smile more, to remember that this was a great adventure and that voters loved a happy warrior.
“Are you having any fun?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Anything we can do to make this more fun?”
Sitting in the seat in front of us, Reggie overheard the conversation and turned back to look at me with a wide grin. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “I’m having the time of my life.”
It was—although I didn’t tell him that at the time. (p. 86)
Obama’s success may look inevitable now, from stemwinding speech in 2004 to the Senate in 2006 to the White House in 2008, but he could almost as easily have been a meteor, a dazzling start that flamed out and crashed down to earth. At one of the early debates, Obama skipped a key point in an answer. “For the next several minutes, Hillary and the others took turns pointing out my oversight. Their tones were somber, but the gleam in their eyes said, Take that, rookie.” On the one hand, having the other candidates focusing on him showed who they thought they had to beat. On the other hand, it’s possible that all the candidates together might have stopped Obama.
Afterward, Axe [David Axelrod, chief strategist] was gentle in his postgame critique.
“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. Take whatever question they give you, give ’em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it … and then talk about what you want to talk about.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
I was frustrated with Axe and even more frustrated with myself. But I realized his insight was hard to deny after watching a replay of the debate. The most effective debate answers, it seemed, were designed not to illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy, or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side. It was easy to dismiss the exercise as superficial. Then again, a president wasn’t a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot, hired to carry out some narrow, specialized task. Mobilizing public opinion, shaping working coalitions—that was the job. Whether I liked it or not, people were moved by emotion, not facts. To elicit the best rather than the worst of those emotions, to buttress those better angels of our nature with reason and sound policy, to perform while still speaking the truth—that was the bar I needed to clear. (pp. 88–89)
So reader, implies former president Obama, can you live up to that? Can you be a citizen who reasons, who listens past the sound bites, who brings their best to the hard work of self-government? He clearly hopes the answer is “Yes, we can.” I can’t help but think that the people Obama needs to persuade are unlikely to pick up his book.
Obama’s casual erudition is present throughout A Promised Land. In that not particularly crucial paragraph quoted above, he echoes fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln with “better angels of our nature.” He also brings rhetorical tripartite structure three times: “to evoke … or identify … or signal”; “a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot”; “To elicit … to buttress … to perform.” He’s playing the mystic chords of allusion and structure, and playing them well, on practically every page of the book. The section on the campaign is brilliant and inspiring, bringing back why Obama became such a phenomenon. Equally, it brings back how frightening the economic free-fall of autumn 2008 was, and how far the Republican leadership — outgoing or potentially incoming — was from being up to the task.
The balance of the book, more than two-thirds of it, is a White House memoir proper. Obama took office in the midst of a massive economic crisis, one that started in the United States but spread rapidly around the world. In 2021, well into the second year of a global pandemic that’s both cause and propellant of another economic crisis, it may be easy to forget how dark prospects looked in 2008, how wealth and jobs suddenly evaporated and how little prospect there seemed of either returning. (Also? Just once in my adult lifetime I’d like a Republican president to leave office without having caused the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Bush I, Bush II and their Republican successor have all managed that feat. It would be great for all concerned if the next Republican breaks the chain.)
Obama wouldn’t be Obama if he didn’t get into lots of details, and a key audience for his writing is the group of people who worked for and with him, who were part of the team that did its best to lead the country from January 2009 through January 2017. Many of them are still in public service, or would return to it given the chance. This memoir is a chance for Obama to praise them publicly, and for history.
Obama also does not shy away from his historic role as the first Black president of the United States. He shows that in many ways, including things that would have remained invisible to the public if he hadn’t written about them.
Gradually, thanks to the steady generosity and professionalism of the residence staff, we found ourselves settling in. We became especially close to our regular crew of chefs and butlers, with whom we had daily contact. As with my valets, all of them were Black, Latino, or Asian American, and all but one were men (Cristeta Comerford, a Filipina American, had been recently appointed as the White House’s executive chef, the first woman to hold the job). And while they were uniformly glad to have well-paying secure jobs with good benefits, it was hard to miss in their racial makeup the vestiges of an earlier time, when social rank had clear demarcations and those who occupied the office of president felt most comfortable in their privacy when served by those they assumed were not their equals—and, therefore, could not judge them.
The most senior butlers were a pair of big, round-bellied Black men with sly senses of humor and the wisdom that comes from having a front-row seat to history. Buddy Carter had been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency, first caring for visiting dignitaries at Blair House and then moving to a job in the residence. Von Everett had been around since Reagan. They spoke of previous First Families with appropriate discretion and genuine affection. But without saying much, they didn’t hide how they felt about having us in their care. You could see it in how readily Von accepted Sasha’s hugs or the pleasure Buddy took in sneaking Malia an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner, in the easy rapport they had talking to Marian [Obama’s mother-in-law] and the pride in their eyes when Michelle wore a particularly pretty dress. They were barely distinguishable from Marian’s brothers or Michelle’s uncles, and in that familiarity they became more, not less, solicitous, objecting if we carried our own plates into the kitchen, alert to even a hint of what they considered substandard service from anyone on the residence staff. It would take us months of coaxing before the butlers were willing to swap their tuxedos for khakis and polo shirts when serving us meals.
“We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president,” Von explained.
“That’s right,” Buddy said. “See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here …” He shook his head. “You just don’t know.” (pp. 253–54)
There was quite a lifetime in that ellipsis.
After detailing some nuts and bolts of making policy — in this case part of the economic rescue package in early 2009 — Obama gives the lessons that he took away, not just from this one instance but from all the instances as he looks back after two full terms.
Just as important, I felt assured we’d run a good process: that our team had looked at the problem from every conceivable angle; that no potential solution had been discarded out of hand; and that everyone involved—from the highest-ranking cabinet member to the most junior staffer in the room—had been given the chance to weigh in. … [Note the tripartite rhetoric again.]
My emphasis on process was born of necessity. What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster, a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with a 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended), a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse.
In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision. … But with a sound process—one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles—I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night. … A good process also meant I could allow each member of the team to feel ownership over the decision—which meant better execution and less relitigation of White House decisions through leaks to The New York Times or The Washington Post. (pp. 293–94)
Similar logic applies to Supreme Court decisions: if they were easy, or had no political element, the cases would not have made it to the Supreme Court.
The passage also shows what Obama considers a good process, and citizens who care can usually find out whether their elected leaders, at whatever level, are using similarly good processes. Or indeed any process at all.
How did the economic rescue package turn out? “If I had predicted on the day of my swearing in that within a year the U.S. financial system would have stabilized, almost all TARP funds would be fully repaid (having actually made rather than cost taxpayers money), and the economy would have begun what would become the longest stretch of continuous growth and job creating in U.S. history, the majority of pundits and experts would have questioned my mental fitness—or assumed I was smoking something stronger than tobacco.” (p. 304) Yet that is exactly what happened. For all that Obama rightly takes a victory lap in recounting the effects of his choices and his team’s actions, he acknowledges that other people see shortcomings. The stimulus should have been bigger. The big banks should have been broken up after they were bailed out. The people who led the economy over a cliff should have gone to jail. The Obama team should have unrigged Wall Street and pushed to reduce inequality. He wonders whether he could have done more, but he thinks that the devil is in the details, and the devils in those other options would have made the overall situation worse.
An American president can never concentrate solely on domestic matters. Obama covers his global engagements thoroughly but not exhaustively. Iraq and Afghanistan took up a lot of his time and attention. By the time Obama took office, Osama bin Laden had gone uncaptured for more than seven years after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. To an outsider, it appeared that the Bush administration had lost interest, pursuing its war of choice in Iraq and changing the mission in Afghanistan from capturing bin Laden and dismantling al-Qaeda into something much more open-ended and vague. In the course of discussing world events, Obama also gives brief studies of the other leaders he encountered. Here he is on German Chancellor Angela Merkel:
Merkel’s eyes were big and bright blue and could be touched by turns with frustration, amusement, or hits of sorrow. Otherwise, her stolid appearance reflected her no-nonsense, analytical sensibility. She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she’d been initially skeptical of me precisely because of my oratorical skills. I took no offense, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing. (pp. 334–35)
I had also heard that Obama and Merkel took a while to warm up to each other, but that once they did they had a friendly competition going to see who could be the most prepared for their meetings. Many people have underestimated Angela Merkel, including me, but I doubt that Obama ever did. In May 2017, Obama returned to Berlin for a public discussion with Merkel as part of the annual convention of Germany’s established Protestant churches. I saw them talk (along with probably 50,000 of my closest friends there on the Street of 17 June) and they clearly had a rapport, two quick minds enjoying batting ideas back and forth.
Here’s Obama on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, standing in for the many authoritarians that he encountered during his time in the White House:
Speaking accented but passable English, Mubarak politely deflected my concerns [about human rights, press restrictions, and political prisoners], insisting that his security services targeted only Islamic extremists and that the Egyptian public strongly supported his firm approach. I was left with an impression that would become all too familiar in my dealings with aging autocrats: Shut away in palaces, their every interaction mediated by the hard-faced, obsequious functionaries that surrounded them, they were unable to distinguish between their personal interests and those of their nations, their actions governed by no broader purpose beyond maintaining the tangled web of patronage and business interests that kept them in power. (p. 365)
Here’s Obama on Vladimir Putin, who was Russia’s prime minister when Obama took office and then returned to the Kremlin as Russia’s president in 2012:
When Axe asked for my impressions of the Russian leader, I’d said that I found him strangely familiar, “like a ward boss, except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto.” This prompted a laugh, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine or Tammany Hall—tough, street smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade. For them, as for Putin, life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe, but in the end, you couldn’t trust them. You looked out for yourself first and then for your own. In such a world, a lack of scruples, a contempt for any high-minded aspirations beyond accumulating power, were not flaws. They were an advantage.
Afghanistan was a key concern of Obama’s presidency from the beginning of his term of office and, sadly, until its end.
Unfortunately the six-year diversion of U.S. attention and resources to Iraq had left the situation in Afghanistan more perilous. … In places where U.S. or coalition forces weren’t present, Taliban fighters overwhelmed a far larger but badly trained Afghan army. Meanwhile, mismanagement and rampant corruption inside the police force, district governorships, and key ministries had eroded the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s government and siphoned off foreign aid dollars desperately needed to hep improve living conditions for one of the world’s poorest populations.
The lack of a coherent U.S. strategy didn’t help matters. Depending on who you talked to, our mission in Afghanistan was either narrow (wiping out al-Qaeda) or broad (transforming the country into a modern, democratic state that would be aligned with the West). Our Marines and soldiers repeatedly cleared the Taliban from an area only to see their efforts squandered for lack of even halfway-capable local governance. (p. 316)
Obama convened his top advisers, including area experts, military leaders, and Secretary of State Clinton, to set a strategy.
Among the principals, only Joe Biden voiced his misgivings. He had traveled to Kabul on my behalf during the transition, and what he saw and heard on the trip—particularly during a contentious meeting with Karzai—had convinced him that we needed to rethink our entire approach to Afghanistan. … [H]he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to trying to pull troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one. …
“Listen to me, boss,” [Biden] said [one on one after the meeting broke up]. “Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president. … Don’t let them jam you.” (pp. 318–19)
Following this discussion, Obama asks for a report that will end the mixed messages and lay out how the United States can use its vast power to attain concrete and agreed-upon goals in Afghanistan. “The Riedel report, though, made one thing clear: Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.” (p. 321) Pakistan never stopped sheltering the Taliban. The U.S. deemed Pakistan too fragile or too important in other areas to lean on their government enough to get it to stop offering covert support to the Taliban. And so the cycle continued. “What was clear, though, was that the U.S. commitment that the Riedel report was calling for went well beyond a bare-bones counterterrorism strategy and toward a form of nation-building that would have made sense—had we started seven years earlier, the moment we drove the Taliban out of Kabul. Of course that’s not what we had done. Instead, we had invaded Iraq, broken that country, helped spawn an even more virulent branch of al-Qaeda, and been forced to improvise a costly counterinsurgency campaign there. As far as Afghanistan was concerned, those years were lost.” (p. 321) And not just those years. Joe Biden entered his term of office knowing that there would never be a good time to leave Afghanistan, but that it had to be done.
Obama did not fool himself about the costs of his decisions.
“Later, toward the end of my presidency, The New York Times would run an article about my visits to the military hospitals. In it, a national security official from a previous administration opined that the practice, no matter how well intentioned, was not something a commander in chief should do—that visits with the wounded inevitably clouded a president’s ability to make clear-eyed, strategic decisions. I was tempted to call that man and explain that I was never more clear-eyed than on the flights back from Walter Reed and Bethesda. Clear about the true costs of war, and who bore those costs. Clear about war’s folly … Clear that by virtue of my office, I could not avoid responsibility for lives lost or shattered, even if I somehow justified my decisions by what I perceived to be some larger good.” (p. 325)
Of course it wasn’t all grim work and foreign autocrats. Obama recounts the time he treasured with his family, along with the ups and downs of trying to raise two girls with some semblance of normalcy. Sleepovers with friends and after-hours visits to museums were an up, other parents’ negative reactions to Obama and Reggie Love coaching one of the girls’ basketball team to the league championship were an exasperating down. And then there was the interaction between public and private.
But maybe the best White House perk involved music. One of Michelle’s goals as First Lady was to make the White House more welcoming—a “People’s House” in which all visitors would feel represented, rather than a remote, exclusive fortress of power. Working with the White House Social Office, she organized more tours for local school groups and started a mentorship program that paired disadvantaged kids with White House staffers. She opened up the South Lawn for trick-or-treating on Halloween, and held movie nights for military families.
As part of that effort, her office arranged for us to host a regular American music series in tandem with public television, in which some of the country’s leading artists—household names like Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake but also up-and-comers like Leon Bridges and living legends like B.B. King—spent part of a day conducting music workshops with area youths before performing in front of a couple hundred guests on an East Room stage. …
Every genre was represented: Motown and Broadway show tunes; classic blues and a Fiesta Latina gospel and hip-hop; country, jazz, and classical. The musicians typically rehearsed the day before they were scheduled to appear, and if I happened to be upstairs in the residence as they were running through their set, I could hear the sounds … Sometimes I’d sneak down the back stairs of the residence and slip into the East Room, standing in the rear so as not to attract attention and just watch the artists at work … I’d marvel at everyone’s mastery of their instruments, the generosity they showed toward one another as they blended mind, body, and spirit, and I’d feel a pang of envy at the pure, unambiguous joy of their endeavors, such a contrast to the political path I had chosen. (pp. 542–43)
Sometimes music and politics overlapped. “I remember a young playwright of Puerto Rican descent named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who told us in the photo line before an evening of poetry, music, and the spoken word that he planned to debut the first song of what he hoped would be a hip-hop musical on the life of America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. We were politely encouraging but secretly skeptical, until he got up onstage and started dropping beats and the audience went absolutely nuts.” (p. 543)
In the spring of 2011, Obama spoke to students graduating from Miami Dade, students “who primarily came from low-income, Latino, Black, and immigrant families and were, in most cases, the first in their families to attend college.” (p. 690)
In my remarks to the graduates that evening, I spoke about the American idea: what their accomplishment said about our individual determination to reach past the circumstances of our birth, as well as our collective capacity to overcome our differences to meet the challenges of out time. I recounted an early childhood memory of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders and waving a tiny American flag in a crowd gathered to greet the astronauts from one of the Apollo space missions after a successful splashdown in the waters off Hawaii. And now, more than forty years later, I told the graduates, I’d just had a chance to watch my own daughters hear from a new generation of space explorers. It had caused me to reflect on all that America had achieved since my own childhood; it offered a case of life coming full circle—and proof, just as their diplomas were proof, just as my having been elected president was proof, that the American idea endures.
The students and their parents had cheered, many of them waving American flags of their own. I thought about the country I’d just described to them—a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone. At about the same age as the graduates were now, I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true. (p. 690)
A Promised Land tells part of how Barack Obama worked to make that idea come true.