The Promised Land, by Barack Obama, Viking, 750 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0241491515
Relief is the dominant feeling around Joe Biden’s election and inauguration. So it’s hard to remember the elation that many felt at Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency a dozen years ago. I moved to Ireland just weeks before the 2008 election. The following morning I remember stumbling over paying for some small item at a newsagent. I apologised to the woman at the till, explaining that I had been up all night watching the election. So had she, it turned out. We both smiled.
Today is it difficult to see the Obama presidency as anything but a disappointment. Like Biden today, Obama entered office planning to unify a divided nation. He failed. Obama hoped to tamp down partisanship by eschewing divisive rhetoric and thereby “lowering the temperature”. But when you treat a fever without addressing its underlying cause, you mask the disease. The patient will only get sicker. Obama’s central mistake was his belief that American democracy was fundamentally healthy. It has proved anything but. One can only hope that Biden and the Democrats have assimilated the lessons of the Obama presidency ‑ that the American political system requires major transformation and that it is more important to defeat Republicans at the ballot box than to reconcile with them. For if they haven’t, the Biden presidency will be yet another missed opportunity and a fleeting victory over Trumpism.
Reading Obama’s memoir, The Promised Land, reminded me of his many admirable traits. For one thing, how many political figures can write a book that you would actually want to read? In literary terms, The Promised Land is the best presidential memoir since the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant was published in 1885. Obama’s intelligence, charm, self-awareness, relatability, and humour are all on abundant display. He had all the qualities that made for a great president: incorruptible, competent, calm yet decisive, and with a genuine care for how his governance affected ordinary people in the US and around the world. Obama truly was a once-in-a-generation politican, which only makes the failures of his presidency all the more disheartening.
The Promised Land is primarily concerned with the first two and a half years of Obama’s presidency. Its main narrative is of how an idealistic young man accommodated himself to the stark constraints of governing a nation while nevertheless achieving meaningful progress. Even though, true to genre, the book is a defence of Obama’s actions in office, it often strikes a tragic note. “There would always be a chasm,” Obama writes, “between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish.” If Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was the inspiring “Yes, we can”, he seems to have governed with the motto “No, we can’t.”
The dialectical tension between Obama’s idealism and his realism often makes for revealing observations. Of the Somali pirates who kidnapped an American ship captain in 2009, Obama writes: “I wanted somehow to save them ‑ send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.” And when protesters in Cairo gather in Tahir Square to demand democracy, Obama confesses, “If I were an Egyptian in my twenties, I’d probably be out there with them.” Yet he also admits, “had it not been for the stubborn persistence of those young people in Tahir Square, I’d have worked with Mubarak for the rest of my presidency, despite what he stood for ‑ just as I would continue to work the rest of the corrupt, rotting, and authoritarian order, that controlled life in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Obama explains his major domestic policies as doing the best he could under the circumstances. He portrays his handling of the financial crash and economic crisis he inherited as an effort to “get the policy right”, damn the politics. For him, this meant eschewing any effort to seriously reduce the power of Wall Street, instead adopting policies that shored up the big banks, calmed the markets, and allowed credit to flow again. He writes candidly about how Wall Street leaders “drove him nuts” with their “bullshit”: their entitled attitudes and refusal to admit that their very survival depended on the federal government. Yet he decides against taking any purely “symbolic” action against them that might upset the markets. In retrospect he “wonders whether I should have been bolder” but concludes that his handling of the crisis demonstrates that “I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision.”
Writing of his signature piece of legislation, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, he is more defiant. The act was indeed a major accomplishment, providing millions of Americans with health insurance. But it did so by preserving the private health insurance industry, making many Americans pay high premiums, and failing to provide a path to a truly universal system in which all Americans would be entitled to decent healthcare. Obama defends his legislation as the best that could be accomplished under the circumstances. He is exasperated by progressive Democrats who thought he could have done more by including a so-called “public option” of government healthcare in the legislation. Obama remembers that “the left went ballistic” over his failure “to defy political gravity”. Indeed, throughout A Promised Land, the critics Obama is most keen to defend himself against are those to his left. Maybe he protests too much, revealing the inner doubts that emerge from his more idealistic, progressive self.
Obama could certainly have accomplished more. It is bizarre that he considers having to handle a financial crisis to have compromised his broader agenda of tackling economic inequality. For it is precisely in such moments of crisis that real political change is possible. The Affordable Care Act was a classic instance of Obama’s tendency to compromise in advance by proposing more limited policies that he knew could more easily pass through the legislature. But even if the act were the best he could accomplish, there was nothing stopping him from portraying it as a step toward achieving the eventual goal of healthcare as a right for all. This he never really did.
Obama’s stress on political constraints overlooks the significant mandate he had for change. He won a clear victory over his opponent, John McCain. The popularity of his predecessor, George W Bush, was in the gutter, sitting at 25 per cent at the end of his presidency. His own approval ratings were in the high 60s when he took over. More important, the 2008 election had provided a mandate for his party, giving Democrats enviable majorities in both the House of Representatives (77) and in the Senate (17). In a sharply divided partisan landscape, Democrats had, by a small but decisive margin, become the party of the majority of Americans.
It is odd that he would feel so constrained under these circumstances. He was so limited only because he accepted the power structure as it was, including the most undemocratic features of the American political system. Railing at critics on the left, Obama asks, “What is it about sixty votes these folks don’t understand?” But one might rather ask, “Why is it that it takes sixty votes out of a hundred to pass legislation through the US Senate?” Obama knows the answer, that sixty votes are required to end a filibuster, a tactic primarily developed by Southern segregationists to block civil rights legislation and which now frustrates any effort at significant political change. But there is little sign that he seriously considered pushing to end the filibuster and none at all that he considered bolstering Democratic power in the Senate by pushing statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico.
Even more frustrating is his pathological desire to win Republican support for his initiatives. Fearing that he would alienate Republicans, he shelved inquiry into the colossal failures of George W Bush’s regime, missing an opportunity to more permanently tar Bush’s party with his unpopularity. Obama bizarrely believed that healthcare reform would be better protected politically with Republican support. What actually protected it was that it provided tangible benefits to millions of Americans, which is why Republican efforts to overturn it in 2017 failed. Republicans in the middle of the twentieth century did not accept New Deal reforms because Democrats were nice to them; they accepted them because Democrats kept beating them at the polls.
For a self-professed realist, Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship is awfully utopian, rooted in the hope that winning the votes of Republican legislatures would show that “people across the country weren’t as divided as our politics suggested”. He profoundly misread the politics of the moment. Acting as if high-mindedness alone could change the tenor of American politics, he perfectly played into the hands of Republicans whose agenda was to frustrate him at every turn for ruthless partisan gain. It boggles the mind that a president so committed to maintaining overwhelming American military strength as a deterrent to foreign threats emulated Neville Chamberlain in appeasing American democracy’s domestic enemies. This accommodation paved the road for Trump’s triumph. As Trump’s campaign adviser Steve Bannon remarked to left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore: “Our side, we go for the head wound. Your side, you have pillow fights.”
If Obama’s policies were inadequate, they mostly moved in the right direction. His main failure lay in the opportunity he missed to change American politics. He viewed politics as something he needed to transcend rather than transform and, once president, he primarily saw it as an impediment to governing properly. But in so doing, he left American power relations intact. Clinging to the conventional wisdom of the past, he failed to grasp that politics had already been transformed by the financial crash.
Throughout A Promised Land, the growth of Trumpism buzzes ominously in the background. With the nomination of Sarah Palin as Republican vice-presidential candidate, Obama already detects that “the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party ‑ xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks ‑ were finding their way to center stage.” The Tea Party movement emerged early in Obama’s presidency with the rant of a right-wing television personality who denounced government aid to the “losers” who had overstretched to buy their homes and were now facing foreclosure. In 2010, Trump was gaining political prominence by promoting the racist “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born outside the US.
Obama recognised the growing danger of Trumpism, but had no plan to stop it. Actually, Obama had no long-term political strategy whatsoever. This despite the fact that his presidential campaign, especially his capture of the Democratic nomination, had suggested a way forward. That campaign relied on face-to-face organising, large rallies, social media, and small donors, taking on some of the characteristics of a social movement had enabled him to defeat the favourite, Hillary Clinton. But after his election, he demobilised his troops instead of re-enlisting them to fight for an ambitious progressive agenda. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to do otherwise.
The result was a political catastrophe. Very low voter turnout led to widespread Democratic defeat in 2010. Obama resigned himself early on to defeat in 2010, as it is a typical result for the president’s party in midterm elections. But the scale of defeat was stunning, with sixty-three seats changing hands in the House of Representatives, the largest swing since 1938. Given that Obama had used the Illinois state legislature as a stepping stone for his own political career, it is remarkable that not one sentence of the 700 pages of A Promised Land notes Democrats’ massive defeat that year in the state legislatures, in which they lost control of twenty-one chambers. While Republicans were well aware of the importance of this victory, Obama and the Democrats were asleep at the wheel. For these state legislatures were empowered to redraw congressional maps (redrawn every decade according to the US constitution), a power Republicans ruthlessly exploited to gerrymander districts to their partisan advantage. Hence in the 2012 election in North Carolina, despite Democrats winning 51 per cent of the votes for Congress to the Republicans’ 48 per cent, they returned only four members of Congress to the Republicans’ nine. After 2010, Obama really was constrained in terms of what legislation he could pass. Though he was re-elected and maintained personal popularity, years of partisan gridlock and simmering discontent with the system allowed Donald Trump to succeed him.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats have learned the lesson of Obama’s political failures. It is all right for Biden to speak of unity and to reach out to Republican voters, but let’s hope he doesn’t waste any time in a chimerical quest for bipartisanship. For the first time since 2008, the Democrats control the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate (by the narrowest of margins). It is essential that they use this opportunity to address the current crises and to pass legislation providing material gains to ordinary Americans. But they must also reform the political system to both advance democracy and benefit their party in the long run by passing strong voting rights legislation and granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico to give themselves an extra four senators.
There are reasons for hope. Does any Democrat now really believe that the Republican Party is a responsible opposition sharing the same democratic values and with whom they can reasonably bargain? One certainly hopes not after four years of Trump capped by the outgoing president’s refusal to accept the validity of Biden’s election (supported by all but ten Republicans in the House of Representatives) and his incitement of an insurrection of white supremacists that nearly resulted in the assassination of many members of Congress. It is far easier to recognise now than it was in 2008 that preserving American democracy requires defeating Republicans, not trying to work with them. Rejecting bipartisanship would itself move the Democratic Party to more progressive positions that could build a lasting majority. After all, bipartisanship has typically been a tool for supporting the agenda that both party leaderships support: the one backed by their corporate donors.
Most importantly, unlike during the Obama years, there is a powerful faction within the Democratic Party that has a long-term political strategy to win power through mobilising ordinary Americans to massively redistribute wealth and power. Bernie Sanders is not president, in large part thanks to Obama, who effectively organised behind the scenes to ensure that his former vice-president would be nominated instead. But Sanders is the chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee. He and those who voted for him will push Biden to advance a progressive platform that can mobilise a lasting majority.
For Biden can’t afford to focus on “governance, politics be damned”, as Obama did. If he ignores politics, it will only be a matter of time before we again see the triumph of Trump or someone like him who advances an agenda of white supremacy, authoritarianism, climate change denial, and heartlessness toward society’s “losers”. For if Democrats fail now, to quote Obama on what could have happened had he lost in 2008, “then we’re all screwed”.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor of US History at Trinity College Dublin.