Lead book review

Barack Obama was decidedly a man of action as well as words

Barack Obama was famous for his rhetoric, but his achievements show just what a steely political operator he was too, says Sam Leith

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

A Promised Land Barack Obama

Viking/Penguin, pp.751, 35

Well, it’s quite the title, isn’t it? It tends to invite comparisons. The first one that occurred to me, though, was that the original Promised Land guy managed to get all the important stuff down on two stone tablets. His would-be successor doesn’t have quite that gift for compression. As he semi-apologises in the opening pages (he feels bad about it, but not bad enough to do a ruthless edit), this memoir was originally envisioned as a 500-pager. A Promised Land is just north of 700 pages, and there’s another volume to come.

That speaks of a certain self-regard. Then again, Barack Obama has a good bit to be self-regarding about. He overcame a modest background, a Muslim-sounding middle name and the melanin thing to win the presidency, in large part thanks to an unsurpassed gift for oratory. He helped avert a global depression after the 2008 crash. He passed the Affordable Care Act in the teeth of a ferociously obstructionist GOP. He kept a lid on the Iranian nuclear programme, just about negotiated the Arab spring with honour intact, saw off Colonel Gaddafi — and it was on his watch that they got Osama Bin Laden, a thrilling account of which closes the book. He managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize (‘what for?’ he was self-aware enough to wonder) even as he sent tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan and waged unceasing drone war in the sovereign territories of other nations. What’s more he has a good singing voice, a nifty jump shot and a smart, smoking hot wife — he notes, approvingly, the ‘cult of Michelle’s arms’ taking hold of the media.

Whether or not you rate his achievements as highly as he does, to keep company with his elegant prose, complex conscience and unmistakable intelligence is a cool drink of water after four years of the other guy. Did he bring about the other guy? That’s something Obama frets about — and though in these pages Trump is a minor comic character, the book describes with dismay the truth-indifferent, competence-optional rise of what was to metastasise into Trumpism. (File under prolepsis his remark that ‘the AG was first and foremost the people’s lawyer, not the President’s consigliere’.) When John McCain announced his 2008 running-mate, Obama describes Joe Biden peering at the news on David Axelrod’s Blackberry and asking: ‘Who the hell is Sarah Palin?’

A Promised Land is long, in part, because it wants to do two things: to serve the historical record (which means huge passages about the minutiae of passing legislation, complete with hat-tips to obscure staffers and bush-league congressmen); and to offer for the ordinary reader a sense of what it’s like, in human terms, to be the 44th President of the United States of America. Plus, it needs to do a lot of the former to explain to his critics on the right why he’s not a Marxist revolutionary, and to his critics on the left, whose disapproval stings him more, why he was not able to right the wrongs of the world in one go. Doing that — in an age of 280-character position statements — means a patient attention to detail.

But, as I say, there’s a lot of it: he takes two and a half pages to describe his daily commute down the White House’s West Colonnade; complete with picturesque old Black groundsmen (sign of the times: he capitalises Black, as he did not in his first book) who, it occurs to the President, are in a way just like him: ‘guardians… the quiet priests of a good and solemn order.’ There is a good bit of what in the past would have been called ‘pi-jaw’; and a lot, too, of what these days gets called ‘humblebrag’. He does like to namecheck the predecessors he admires, and compare his travails with theirs — Lincoln, JFK, FDR, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Gandhi (commended for ‘giving voice to some of my deepest instincts’) are among those who get an outing.

Also, schmaltz. Obama salts his narrative with passages of novelistic colour and implausibly verbatim dialogue. One of his tics is to describe himself, at one resonant moment or another, contemplating the scene and having a Deep Thought or a Meaningful Memory. ‘I stared at the points on the map […] my mind wandering back to my earliest days as an organiser in Chicago’; ‘looking through the helicopter window at the tidy green landscape below, I thought about Lincoln during the Civil War’;

As Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but think about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with.

Visiting the pyramids in Egypt really sets him off. He contemplates an old graffito of a jug-eared figure who looks a bit like him: ‘All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust.’ He also, in more prosaic moments, has the Alan Partridge quality of liking to end sections by quoting his own witticisms and the approving reactions to same(‘We both got a good laugh out of that’).

But under all that hopey changey stuff, and where the long sections about wrangling policy through Congress really come into their own, is a superbly engaging study in realpolitik. He was famous for his windy rhetoric; but to get anything done in office required a steely political operator. Obama, the centrist dad’s centrist dad, is again and again confronted by the hard arithmetic of the caucus at home, and of tangled interests abroad. He really shows you how the sausage is made — and his cool, conscientious, covering-all-the-angles pragmatism, more than his optimism, is the real fascination in this book. If first-term Obama has an arch-nemesis, it’s not Osama Bin Laden or Donald Trump: it’s the Senate filibuster. And there’s a wry sense of the absurd. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he secures the endorsement of the ‘Butter Cow Lady’, ‘who at the state fair each year sculpted a life-sized cow out of salted butter’, and blasts statewide the prerecorded call announcing her support. ‘She later created,’ he says proudly, an Iowan Ozymandias: ‘a 23-pound butter bust of my head.’

He delivers crisp little put-downs, too. As a candidate, when a do-gooding ice-cream company called on him to defund the Pentagon, he recalls wearily: ‘I had to call either Ben or Jerry — I don’t remember which.’ Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘bantam cock’ (that’s surely at least half right) whose conversation

swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.

Putin leads a Russia that ‘resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did a traditional government’. BP’s Tony Hayward is ‘a walking PR disaster’. Moscow Mitch McConnell — who made it his mission to thwart anything and everything Obama wanted to do regardless of its merits — is described as

an unlikely Republican leader. He showed no appetite for schmoozing, backslapping or rousing oratory. As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform.

And the man himself? He likes vodka neat, has a weakness for nicotine, loves to play basketball, golf and spades. He’s uxorious, devoted to his kids, introspective and self-questioning. He doodles in meetings (‘abstract patterns… sometimes people’s faces or beach scenes — a seagull flying over a palm tree and ocean waves’). He psyches himself up for rallies by listening to Jay-Z and Eminem. And as a young man he read Marx, Marcuse, Fanon and Foucault — but (he makes clear so as not to give Jordan Peterson fans an embolism) mainly to impress girls.

And, wow, what a weird world the President lives in: empty motorways wherever you go, ‘armed Swat teams’ filling every staircase, rooftops cluttered up with ‘Secret Service countersniper teams, clad in black’. If you take off for the loo, hulking men in black suits will mutter ‘Renegade to Secondary Hold’ into their cufflinks. Every day starts with a briefing dossier that Michelle calls the ‘Death, Destruction and Horrible Things Book’.

It’s plain that Michelle doesn’t like any of it all that much. When Barack was originally thinking about running for president, he told her: ‘You get the final say.’

Michelle lifted her eyebrows as if to suggest she didn’t believe me. ‘If that’s really true, then the answer is no,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you to run for president, at least not now.’

Three pages later, he’s running for president anyway. ‘If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania,’ he writes, ‘it appeared I was passing the test.’

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