A Promised Land by Barack Obama
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Promised Land
Volume 1 of the Presidential memoirs of Barack Obama has arrived and weighs in at 700 pages. There are some that prefer to deal with independent historical narratives as opposed to memoirs; my view is that memoirs offer valuable insight, despite Presidents looking to put the best spin on their actions. In this case I do believe Obama’s insights are indeed valuable, and reflect some authentic pressures he felt, with an honest amount of self-doubt expressed throughout.
It goes without saying that every President faces monumental decisions, some of which are choices between bad and worse. Obama is a reflective man, and that reflection brings forward some admission that choices he made were disappointing to some, especially those who voted for him and were expecting change to come faster and bigger. Our system, like it or not, is built for incremental change, and President Obama understood that, but also understood that his election brought some outsized expectations that could not always be met.
The book gives us some biographical background, and takes us on a brief tour of the Obama political career in Illinois, as he climbs the political ladder while experiencing some defeats. Obama gives us, throughout the book, the challenges inherent in maintaining a marriage and family while trying to build a political career. Michele Obama, while supportive, had some doubts about some of the political decisions that were made. He was pretty honest about those disagreements (doubts) that Michele had.
One of the truly bad decisions highlighted was Obama’s entry into a congressional race against Bobby Rush, the incumbent. Obama saw Rush as easy pickings (my words) but he soon discovered his error. He got crushed in that race, losing by 30%. He realized that he had overreached, building a campaign on false assumptions. He made up for that mistake by winning an open U.S. Senate seat after getting drubbed in a Congressional race. After losing the Congressional race Obama related a story about traveling to the Democratic National Convention and not having the proper credentials to actually get on the convention floor. He points out something that served him well. “It speaks, I tell my audience, to the unpredictable nature of politics, and the necessity for resilience.” Page37
Obama’s Senate win changed the dynamic, and he immediately became a celebrity Senator. We get a look at his now famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, which helped to give him a national profile. The campaign for President, and the interaction with Hillary Clinton, is covered, and in a surprisingly candid way. Obama spreads some praise onto Clinton, but the book reveals some tensions. Obama used the accusations of “dog whistles” in describing a Bill Clinton campaign speech, comparing it to tactics deployed by Lee Atwater. That is pretty tough.
After winning the Presidency Obama was generous in his praise of President George W. Bush and the transition he ran, but like the Clinton praise it is mixed in with some (diplomatic) hard shots on President Bush on policy. The disaster that was left behind for Obama to deal with is covered, and we get to see some of the folks that became mainstays of the Administration. (Rahm, Plouffe, Axelrod)
The book does a good job of covering the major issues of his first term, including some of the dynamics of group meetings with Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner. (We will take a look at
the new Boehner book for some additional detail there.) As Obama moved to try to win bipartisan support for the American Recovery Act he ran into a stone wall of GOP opposition, giving us the seeds of the political polarization that has become so difficult to navigate. We see that in the withdrawal of NH Senator Judd Gregg from consideration as Obama Commerce Secretary, and the Obama hug that ended Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s career as a Republican.
There were many monumental decisions taken to deal with the inherited economic mess, including the actions taken to save the auto industry, the continued issues in the financial sector, and a host of foreign policy issues. Obama still has some sharp elbows for some in the banking and business sectors who resented his “rhetoric” on the medicine necessary to accompany the massive financial bailouts afforded to that sector. Obama’s obvious resentments here are not restricted to the business community, but are spread over to those who felt that he should have taken the opportunity to impose harsher medicine, possibly breaking up some large financial institutions and sending some bankers to jail. Yes, Obama took much flak from the left on that score. He addresses those concerns, and while sympathetic to the reasons for such criticism he believes that on balance his administration did the best they could without causing further disruptions to the economy.
As you might expect we get some interesting takes on foreign leaders, including Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel, and Nicholas Sarkozy, as well as his take on then Russian President Medvedev, keeping the seat warm for Vladimir Putin.
His take on the passage of Obama Care, and how a Massachusetts Senate race between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley impacted the legislative process, was a key part of the book. (He was not too kind to the Coakley campaign)
Obama had disagreements with the military, and a complicated relationship with Bob Gates, who he kept on as Defense Secretary. (The Gates memoir, although I have not read it yet, nicks up Obama a bit) Obama, like his successors, had no easy answer to the problems and contradictions involved in our policy and presence in Afghanistan.
I have only managed to highlight a few pieces of this first memoir, which I think contributes to the historical understanding of the events of Obama’s first term. I understand that President’s put their own spin on the actions and policies they undertook in their memoirs but I believe they all contain some important information, even if it is given through a sympathetic view. Obama’s first term was most certainly impactful, and we continue to wrestle with some of the same issues today. I highly recommend this first installment of the Obama memoir.
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