Obama’s “A Promised Land” reflects a decent man who just happens to be president


Shreyas Banerjee/The Observer

After saying goodbye to Trump, revisit Obama’s presidency in his new memoir.

Shreyas Banerjee, A&E Editor

I remember when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I was only seven years old at the time, but I could feel the excitement in the air, from my parents, my teachers and from the general public. While I of course did not understand the implications of the moment and how his election would affect our country’s response to a deepening financial crisis, seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and issues like healthcare, it still seemed like a historic moment. I was about to spend most of my childhood with a president who wasn’t a white man. That in and of itself makes Obama’s presidency historic, but what has always made him stand out, and is exemplified in his new memoir,  “A Promised Land,” is his uncommon decency. Reflecting upon his rise to the presidency and most of his first term in office, Obama, for all his faults, seemed to always try to do the right thing. But in his attempts to do so, he became one of the most divisive and polarizing figures in modern American politics.

Watching from the sidelines of his presidency as I went through elementary school and middle school allowed me new understanding but left me with new questions. Why were people attacking him over his birth certificate? What’s so wrong with saying that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin? Why are we bailing out the big banks if people are losing their jobs because of them? How come nobody was talking about hope and change anymore?

Now four years after the Obama era, with a successive administration that vowed to tear down his legacy and a current one aimed at restoring it, Obama’s “A Promised Land” gives intimate details about his time in the White House and reveals his thought processes through the election up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Unlike other presidents, Obama is actually a writer, having written the acclaimed memoir “Dreams from My Father” before ever becoming a politician. His first memoir described his experience as a biracial child growing up in America and around the world before going to Harvard Law School. 

In his new memoir, Obama picks up the threads from there, eloquently describing his first encounters with his future wife Michelle Robinson, his ensuing life as a community organizer, his time as a state politician, his failed run for the House of Representatives, his successful run for the Senate and his rapid ascension in Democratic politics. While some online chatter has critiqued his memories of college, where he comes off as a faux-intellectual and failed flirt, all-in-all, Obama’s younger years make for some of the most interesting parts of the book. Obama is simultaneously a patriotic jingoist while also a harsh critic of the United States, making for quite the paradox as he starts to create his moral compass. His early belief that he could break through political polarization and make change is endearing while also hopelessly naive given how times have changed, but the way his adamant faith in the American people is portrayed is touching.

Hearing the details and the gossip about how “Yes we can” and “Fired up, ready to go” came along is all part of the fun, but what makes the memoir standout are Obama’s reflections on the key events in his political career. From the historic election, to the battles with intransigent Republicans, to the day to day operations of the White House, Obama has thoughts on it all, telling the tale from the perspective of an everyday guy who just happens to be running the most powerful nation in the world. The memoir is written in a relatable manner, making complex policy considerations comprehensible and providing his perspective on the actions he took and didn’t take.

What’s striking is that much of his thoughts mostly still reflect boundless optimism and faith in the American people. Yes, we may have elected Trump to succeed him, but the American people still took a chance on him. Throughout there is an undercurrent of the rise of rhetoric that would eventually reside in the White House, even today Obama seems to feel his issues weren’t with any flaw in the American populace and instead lay with flaws in his own messaging. 

Obama continuously references Franklin D. Roosevelt as a model he attempts to emulate but often fails to do so. Like FDR, Obama also pushed out quite a few laws that ultimately helped Americans, albeit slowly, in the years where Democrats had full control of the legislative process. But unlike FDR, he was unable to rally the nation around those policies, leading to eventual electoral losses for Democrats and the ascendancy of Trump. His faith in the policies themselves and the American people to understand their value is another aspect of his continued, sometimes misplaced optimism. He eventually concedes this very reality: “I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in.”

Today, Obama’s seeming inability to communicate with many of the people who elected him and make the true structural change he promised still haunts the nation. Even though I don’t agree with everything Obama did, I found myself almost yelling at the page for him to be bolder and louder, rather than just implicitly trust the country to figure out what the end goal was. Obama was yelling at his past self right alongside me. Obama’s memoir is a record of someone too trusting to be president, who valued effective governance and the nitty gritty aspects of leadership over the part that involves inspiring the populace in non-election years. He’s a decent man with strong ideas but insisted on pulling his punches, failing to properly defend his legacy for the sake of decorum, and we all paid the price. 

As Obama himself put it: “FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t.” It seems that lesson didn’t come until too late.

Obama coming into office by itself was an inspiration and broke barriers, but even he knows that isn’t enough, and his superbly written memoir points out that fact several times. For now, the quest for a more equitable America goes on.