Obama’s new memoir: The good, the bad and the ugly

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on November 24, 2020

Fighting perceptions: Barack Obama writes about a difficult period in his presidency when he was constantly afraid of being seen as “soft on terror”   -  REUTERS/MARCO BELLO

The former US President’s erudition and flair for stating complex realities are obvious in his third memoir, but so is his hawkishness about foreign policies that took hundreds of civilian lives

* When assessed on symbolism and sheer force of rhetoric, Barack Obama remains the most naturally gifted politician the US has ever seen

* This is a skilled writer who can pen perfectly serviceable books in any mode or genre he chooses to


The title of former US President Barack Obama’s new memoir — A Promised Land — is meant to convey the burden of expectations placed on a leader like him. He was not only the first black American president, he was also the first to have any real lived experience in parts of the world that the current White House occupant memorably dubbed “shithole countries”. People expected him to be the president of hope and change.

Unfortunately for the US, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Between the several hundreds of civilian lives Obama’s drone strikes took, the corrupt Wall Street executives he gave a free pass to in the early days of his presidency (despite having a Democrat majority in both the Senate and the House), and his cynical undercutting of the progressive agenda in two successive Democratic primaries (on both occasions, at Senator Bernie Sanders’s expense), Obama is hardly the progressive beacon that he once was. But given the overt as well as implied racism that emanated from the White House since his exit in 2017, it is also difficult to ignore the immense sociological impact of having a black president in office. When assessed on symbolism and sheer force of rhetoric, Obama remains the most naturally gifted politician the US has ever seen.

The trajectory of his third memoir — which follows Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2005) — reflects Obama’s changing image among American progressives: A Promised Land starts off strongly across the first 200-odd pages before stuttering through an iffy, staid middle section and, finally, becoming cringe-worthy neoliberal apologia across the last hundred pages.

A Promised Land / Barack Obama / Penguin Viking / Non-fiction / ₹1,999


The early chapters, however, are breezy reading thanks to Obama’s obvious erudition and his flair for stating complex realities in a measured yet critical tone. Like the time he waxes eloquent about bipartisan politics before acknowledging that the “bipartisan peace” of the past depended largely on “women and minorities knowing their place”. Wearing one’s learning lightly doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For many it is a skill acquired through years of patience and hard work — Obama is, and always has been excellent on this front. The chapters about his early childhood (covered in much greater detail in Dreams from My Father) are familiar, comfortable reads, affirming what we’ve always known about the author and his background. The sections about his intellectual growth as a child are also reminiscent of the works of author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of Obama’s biggest defenders.

Quite simply, this is a skilled writer who can, I imagine, write perfectly serviceable books in any mode or genre he chooses to. He has a keen sense of both character and scene. The riveting section where wife Michelle asks ‘Barry’ bluntly why he wants to be president might as well have been directed by Steven Spielberg; like the Hollywood legend, Obama has a near-mystical understanding of what works with a mass audience.

“I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in – they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone ... that would be worth it.”

Where Obama grows increasingly less effective is the baggy middle section, where he talks more and more about the making of his foreign policy. He writes about a difficult period in his presidency when he was constantly afraid of being seen as “soft on terror”, of being pushed to sanction more military strikes by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who maintained a charter of potential strike locations, targets and so on.

And yet, on every given occasion, Obama defends taking civilian lives with a hawkishness that will surprise even his diehard fans. “I took no pleasure in taking these lives,” he says. And yet, he seems to be almost reverential towards people like Emanuel. His former chief of staff is today known for having abused his power as mayor of Chicago in an attempt at covering up the murder of 17-year-old black teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer in 2014. Obama, of course, does not mention this at all, because his brand of corporate-backed, largely symbolic centrism does not deal in inconvenient truths; it deals in easily digestible fairy tales.

On the question of the women and children his drones killed in Pakistan, Syria et al, including, on one occasion, during a wedding, Obama is glib to the point of being disgraceful. The passage cited below is just one among many Orientalising homilies to be found in A Promised Land.

“In places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the lives of millions of young men (...) had been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. 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.”

I suspect this is the one passage people (both critics and fans) will remember because it so perfectly encapsulates the faux-morality of the Obama-Biden-Clinton-Pelosi school of politics. Admire us, they seem to be saying, while we do the exact same things Bush and Bush and Nixon did, while we murder and invade and colonise-by-another-name. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize at the same time he was ordering 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan.

Do I hope that the promised second part of this volume of memoirs acknowledges the grim butcher’s bill of his presidential tenure, preferably with something other than the coy non-apologies he rolls out with a straight face here? Sure I do, but Obama’s own time at the wheel taught me that hope is largely overrated, especially when sold by the United States of America.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on November 24, 2020
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