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In his new memoir, Obama defends — and critiques — his legacy

A Promised Land is a vexed, mournful account of a presidency fraught with obstacles.

Obama speaks in profile against an American flag.
Former President Barack Obama at a drive-in Biden rally in North Miami, Florida, on October 24.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Former President Barack Obama has written three books now. And all three read like they were written by different people, probably because he was a different man when he wrote each of them.

He published his memoir Dreams of My Father in 1995, when he was in his 30s and had not yet run for any political office. It’s the book of a young activist with a point to make and literary gifts aplenty: rich with evocative language, and flavored by a certain amount of world-weary cynicism. This young Obama sees a broken world and has committed himself to working to heal it, but remains uncertain that he will ever make any substantive change.

And he is willing to be vulnerable with his readers. The title Dreams of My Father isn’t a bit of sentimental fluff; he actually takes us into his mind to tell us about a literal dream he had as a young man about his absent father, in which his father exclaims at how tall he’s grown and says, “Barack. I always wanted to tell you how much I love you,” and Obama in response begins to weep with shame.

Reading it now, it feels like a shockingly intimate moment. I know this person the way I know a character in a book, more closely than you can ever know someone real, you might think. It isn’t possible that the man who wrote this, the man whose mind I am inside of right now, could ever have become the most powerful person in the world. The power of the office feels irreconcilable with the intimacy of the book.

In 2006 Obama published The Audacity of Hope, and it’s a very different animal. By the time his second book came out, he had already established himself as a rising star in the Senate with a bright legislative future ahead of him, and so The Audacity of Hope is the book of a political star on the make. Gone are the literary flourishes of Dreams of My Father; the voice of The Audacity of Hope has been filed down into a folksy plainspokenness. Gone too are the enormous vulnerability and the intermittent flights of cynicism. In their place are facts and figures, policy plans, illustrative anecdotes about people who aren’t Obama, and an apparent belief that there are few problems in the world a good enough speech can’t at least improve, if not outright solve. It’s a book by a man who plans to change the world, and who wants to convince you he can do it.

America did give Obama his chance at changing the world, or at least half a chance. And now that his term as president is over, he’s back with a new book to tell us how he thinks he did.

A Promised Land is the first volume of Obama’s planned two-volume memoir, which he sold along with his wife Michelle’s memoir Becoming for a record-smashing $65 million in 2017. In its first day on sale, it sold 890,000 copies in the US and Canada. It opens by sketching Obama’s early life and political career before detailing in exhaustive rigor his time on the national political stage, beginning with his 2004 Senate campaign. It leaves off in May 2011, with Osama bin Laden dead and Donald Trump all over cable news, ranting about a birth certificate.

Manifestly, it is the book of a former president intent on protecting his legacy.

The prose in A Promised Land splits the difference between the lyricism of Obama’s first book and the bean-counting of his second. The goals of this book are clarity and precision, but Obama indulges himself with the occasional writerly metaphor (a nun’s face is “grooved as a peach pit”), and his sketches of famous characters are quick and vivid. Lindsey Graham, he writes, is like the guy in a heist movie “who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, gate-crashes a Chinese envoy at the Copenhagen climate accords “like the straitlaced kid who’s decided to throw caution to the wind.”

Obama’s technical literary gifts aren’t the point here, though. A Promised Land is a book written for the historical record, and it aims to push back against the possibility that said record might be less than flattering. Obama relitigates every public relations battle he ever fought in the 751 pages of the book, down to the time he said Hillary Clinton was “likable enough” during the 2008 Democratic primaries. (It was a joke on her behalf, he says now, meant to mock a question from the debate moderator that he felt was belittling.)

You start to get a sense of how in-depth Obama is going to go when he starts walking us all the way through that primary, state by state. By the time he’s finally elected president on page 200, it becomes clear this book will leave absolutely no event in his national political career unexamined. Every time another knotty question comes up, Obama lays out the many sides of the controversy and recounts every beat of his exhaustive thought processes. Again and again, he concludes that he always made the best of a set of bad choices.

All those deportations? The result of a Bush-era policy he inherited, Obama writes defensively, and one he felt he couldn’t repeal lest he provide the GOP with ammunition to argue that Democrats never enforce existing immigration law. That time he said the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch in 2009 “acted stupidly”? Look, the cop did act stupidly. (Obama notes that his favorability with white voters dropped precipitously after that incident, and he would never fully regain them.) His refusal to prosecute the Wall Street bankers whose policies led to the 2008 financial crisis? Out of his hands: It was up to the Department of Justice and, Obama writes, hence not the president’s call.

“The [attorney general] was first and foremost the people’s lawyer, not the president’s consigliere,” he writes, in one of many passages where the subtext appears in screaming neon ink. “Keeping politics out of the Justice Department’s investigative and prosecutorial decisions was a crucial democratic imperative.”

Ultimately, Obama argues, his first two years in office were wildly successful. The Affordable Care Act reformed US health care. The Recovery Act averted a depression, was the biggest legislative investment in infrastructure since FDR, and got America heavily invested in environmentally friendly energy. (He does not quite say the phrase “Green New Deal” here, but he walks right up to it.) Under his leadership, Obama writes, Congress accomplished more than it had in any single session in the 40 years prior, and he could have done more if it weren’t for the mess he inherited from the Bush administration combined with Republican obstructionism.

But despite Obama’s insistence that he accomplished much to take pride in, he can’t avoid the looming shadow of his successor. President Donald Trump haunts this book like a ghost, rarely mentioned but with the subtext of his forthcoming reign ever present: in the way Obama writes about the Justice Department; in an offhand remark that he wants to avoid starting a trade war with China; in his statement that as a matter of principle, a president shouldn’t ever “publicly whine about criticism from voters.”

And so the question at stake in A Promised Land is this:

Obama based his campaign on the idea that he could appeal to the better angels of America’s nature and make this country a better place. Did he succeed, and was Trump merely an unfortunate aberration in the upward trajectory of America’s moral arc?

Or did Obama fail in his attempt to bring forth America’s best self? Was he, through some inaction or through his attempts to placate the right, or even just through the simple fact of his existence, on some level responsible for Trump’s rise?

The Tea Party’s first grumblings of discontent emerged in February 2009, when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli launched into a rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, falsely declaring that the Obama administration was “promoting bad behavior” by using taxpayer dollars to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages.”

“President Obama, are you listening?” Santelli asked. “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July.”

“Who,” Obama asked, watching the video in 2009, “was going to take such half-baked populism seriously?”

Obama refuses to engage with the video, but he knows exactly what Santelli is doing. It’s that thing conservative pundits always do, he writes: “taking language once used by the disadvantaged to highlight a societal ill and turning it on its ear. The problem is no longer discrimination against people of color, the argument goes; it’s ‘reverse racism.’” Santelli is just playing the same old trick, Obama thinks: “The problem is not bankers using the market as their personal casino. … It’s the lazy and shiftless.”

Concluding that such arguments were “impervious to analysis” and more in “the realm of myth” than logic, he decides to ignore the clip. Within months, Tea Party protests are raging across America.

On the question of what motivates the Tea Party, Obama is elliptical. Surely, he writes, they have some legitimate cause for anger: “decades of sluggish wages, rising costs, and the loss of steady blue-collar work.” Moreover, none of his efforts to right the economy had had any effect yet.

But are they just straight-up racist, acting out of anger and vitriol at the sight of a Black man in the White House? “I saw no way to sort out people’s motives,” Obama writes evasively. But “I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.”

Still, he’s convinced that a few years ago, he could have sat down with the Tea Partiers one on one and reached them. “I wasn’t yet well known enough to be the target of caricature,” he writes wistfully, “which meant that whatever preconceptions people must have had about a Black guy from Chicago with a foreign name could be dispelled by a simple conversation, a small gesture of kindness.”

Ironically, it was Obama’s very facility with such disarming kindness that convinced him that he should run for president in 2008, even though he initially planned to wait until he was a little more seasoned. He noticed that he was exciting voters in a way no one else in the primary field was, he says, and he thought he could use that ability to draw the country together.

But the pinnacle of power to which he ascended robbed him of the ability to make such connections. Now, as the Tea Party rose, he was stuck — peering out from behind the version of himself that the media projected out for America to turn into a myth.

Still, he writes, “I wanted to believe that the ability to connect was still there.”

Barely registering his disbelief, he writes his way around the erosion of democratic norms perpetrated by the Republican Party over the course of his first two years in office: the time a Congress member yelled, “You lie!” during his 2009 joint address; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stated priority of making Obama a one-term president; the Republican Party’s flat refusal to adopt any legislation that came through the White House, even legislation it had previously endorsed; the necessity of building a filibuster-proof majority on each and every issue.

He never goes so far as to suggest that the backlash against him is racist, in the same way he almost never mentions Trump by name. The suggestion is just there, lurking below the surface of his even, restrained writing. I found myself longing for Luther the anger translator to show up and just come out and say it.

What Obama is actually willing to say is racist is the birther conspiracy, which Trump finally shows up peddling on page 672. But Trump, Obama argues, isn’t operating on his own. He’s taking advantage of “an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology.”

What was that reaction? Obama’s not going to say outright. But he does think “it was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.”

Obama considers Trump uniquely disruptive. But he also argues that there’s a straight line from the Republicans in power in 2011 — John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — to Trump himself. “They, too, understood that it didn’t matter whether what they said was true,” he writes. “The only difference between Trump’s style of politics and theirs was Trump’s lack of inhibition.”

Obama argues that the Republican willingness to disregard truth in the pursuit of political power gave the GOP a key advantage when it came to shaping the narrative around his presidency. And he, in his youthful determination to just get policy passed, ignored it at his peril. In the end, he failed to tell the American people a story about the work he was doing that they could believe in.

FDR, he tells himself bitterly, would never have let that happen.

That’s the kind of recrimination Obama allows himself in A Promised Land. It’s a gesture at the kind of vulnerability that made Dreams of My Father so astonishingly intimate, and if this book never quite reaches those levels, it comes a lot closer than The Audacity of Hope did.

It’s helped in that regard by the warmth and tenderness with which Obama writes about his family: the image of 8-year-old Sasha walking through the Kremlin with her hands in the pockets of her trench coat like a tiny secret agent; Malia informing Obama he has to solve climate change so he can save the tigers, because she adores her stuffed toy tiger; Michelle, learning that he’s won the Nobel Peace Prize, saying, “That’s nice, honey,” and then rolling over and going back to sleep.

A Promised Land even lets us in on one of Obama’s most private dreams. It’s one that recurs throughout his presidency, and in the dream he is walking down a city street.

“I’m strolling along, without any thoughts in particular, when suddenly I realize that no one recognizes me,” he writes. There is no security around him, no staff moving him on to the next item on his itinerary.

He goes to a corner store, buys a drink, chats with the cashier. Goes and sits down on a bench, sips his drink, and does some people-watching.

“I feel,” he writes, “like I’ve won the lottery.”

Obama’s ambivalence about his presidency runs shivering through the underside of A Promised Land. Here he is, making the world a better place, just as he always said he would. But how much is he actually able to get done? What is he giving up to do it? And will even his successes always come with a vicious backlash?

With A Promised Land, Obama has enough space and context to set the narrative he thinks he failed to set during his presidency, to make the argument that even if what he accomplished wasn’t perfect, it was the best anyone could do, that he got the country back on track from the edge of disaster.

But he also ends A Promised Land just at the moment that Donald Trump begins riding the racist response to Obama’s presidency to national prominence. From there, Trump would take office and begin assiduously working to dismantle the Obama legacy. He would bring disaster careening back.

In January, Joe Biden, a man Obama repeatedly describes as a “brother” in A Promised Land, will take office amid a pandemic, and amid a recession worse than the one Obama inherited. Biden can begin to attempt the same hard work of recovery that Obama describes setting out so energetically to do in 2009.

But the villains of A Promised Land — McConnell, Graham and all the other instruments of Republican obstructionism — will still be there. And Obama makes it clear, in this book, just how fragile a presidential legacy can be, and how much work and luck it takes to build one at all in the face of a world determined to deny you half a chance.

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