Barack Obama’s new memoir: the 10 best bits
Trump features little but looms large over this autobiography of life in the White House
Barack Obama is sworn in as the president of the United States on January 20th, 2009. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg News
The legacy of a US president is inevitably weighed against what came before and after them, and the presence of Donald Trump looms large over Barack Obama’s new 750-page memoir.
Covering his life before politics, his stunning election victory in 2008 and most of his first term in office, the 44th US president mostly avoids mentioning his successor, except for nine pages, but offers early hints at the rise of a post-truth America that Trump would ruthlessly exploit.
Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, is the first volume of a two-part memoir, secured for an eye-popping $65 million (€55 million) advance. In the book, the unlimited, everything-seems-possible hope of Obama the candidate gives way to the constraints on Obama as president as he struggles with a global financial crisis, economic recession and two foreign conflicts, difficult horse-trading in a divided political arena and jousting with obstructionist Republicans intent on making him a one-term president.
It is a measure of how split the country was, even before Trump’s scorched-earth time in the White House, that the signature achievements of Obama’s first term – economic recovery and healthcare reform – had to overcome strong opposition, even from within his own party. The only act of his first four years in power that brought universal cross-party support was the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
The memoir outstays its welcome at times, but is well written and avoids the wonkishness or verbosity of some political memoirs. It is hard in self-assessment, atypically self-critical and deeply confessional in moments, sharing at one point his choice of reading material in college to woo the interest of women, including “the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black”.
The book captures Obama the man, coping with the limits of power after his early promise of “hope and change”, the disturbing dog whistle of racism sounded in response to his presidency and the claustrophobia of the White House where he felt like a “dancing bear” in a “circus cage”.
What role Obama might have played in turning voters to Trump is only hinted at here but may be left to the second part of his memoir or the independent analysis of another.
Obama is scathing on the flames the property magnate-turned-reality TV star fanned in 2011, peddling claims that he was not born in the US and an illegitimate president: “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
His closest contact with Trump before then was when, during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Trump called to offer to plug the leaking oil well on the seabed and to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House grounds – “an offer that was politely declined”, writes Obama.
Michelle Obama feared the potential consequences of Trump’s race-baiting in more sinister terms and what actions painting her husband as “a nefarious ‘Other’” during the “birtherism” movement might provoke on their family: “People think it’s all a game. They don’t care that there are thousands of men with guns out there who believe every word that’s being said.”
By 2017, Obama writes that he and his wife were “drained, physically and emotionally” not just from eight years in the White House but “by the unexpected results of an election in which someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for had been chosen as my successor”.
Obama’s vetting of the veteran US senator as a running mate in 2008 offers funny insider colour on the next president. He writes of their meeting to discuss the vice-presidency: “He was resistant at first – like most senators, Joe had a healthy ego and disliked the idea of playing second fiddle. Our meeting began with him explaining all the reasons why the job of vice-president might be a step down for him (along with an explanation of why he’d be the best choice).”
Why Obama ran
While weighing up a presidential run, Michelle cut to the heart of the matter by asking her husband at a meeting of those closest to him why he needed to be president. He replied: “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.” This achievement will be Obama’s most enduring legacy.
Race and the rise of post-truth America
America’s troubled relations with race surface at points, notably with the ascent of the Tea Party on the Republican flank and the nativist motives behind the opposition to his progressive policies, spurred on by Fox News and other conservative media.
It is a struggle that appears unresolved as he explores, with deep honesty, an ugliness that he and his presidency brought out in others. Sarah Palin’s campaign rallies as John McCain’s running mate in 2008 were a precursor of the Trump years: “Through Palin, it seemed as if 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 centre stage.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a spouse who sacrificed so much for her husband’s political ambitions, the former first lady emerges as one of the heroes of the memoir, mostly from her sharp, no-nonsense insights, her humour and her capacity to take Obama down a peg or two when needed.
He writes about their difficult times too, how she initially attacked his selfishness for considering running because she hated politics and “the way it exposes our family”. Later, he is concerned about the “undercurrent of tension in her, subtle but constant, like the faint thrum of a hidden machine”, her loneliness and his fear the “lighter” days between them might not return.
Hillary and the 2008 race
Obama seems to holds back on a full assessment of his former challenger and, later, his secretary of state. He offers just snippets of the tensions between them during the bruising Democratic primary, their confrontation over campaign attacks on the tarmac of a Washington airport, and is excessively fair in explaining her anger at a political upstart trouncing her.
“She’s like a f*cking vampire – you can’t kill her off,” said Obama’s campaign strategist David Plouffe of their protracted battle against the former New York senator.
Obama’s account of how he won the Democratic race, particularly that all-important first voting state of Iowa with his team of colourful grassroots campaigners, is fascinating. A highlight.
At Obama’s first encounter with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader subjected the US president to a 45-minute rant against America. Putin was physically “unremarkable” with a “wrestler’s build” who had “a practised disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants. Someone who’d grown used to power.” He reminded Obama of a Chicago ward boss “except with nukes and a UN Security Council veto”.
British prime minister David Cameron had a “studied informality” where “at every international summit, the first thing he’d do was take off his jacket and loosen his tie”.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy is rewarded with the best pen-picture of the foreign leaders: “What Sarkozy lacked in ideological consistency, he made up for in boldness, charm and manic energy. Indeed, conversations with Sarkozy were by turns amusing and exasperating, his hands in perpetual motion, his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s.”
At home, Republican senator and Trump critic turned Trump supporter Lindsey Graham is like the guy in a spy thriller or heist movie “who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin”.
The quick-witted Obama laces his memories with funny one-liners. Of a Democratic critic slating his attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon leak, he writes: “What does he think I’m supposed to do? Put on my f*cking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”
Obama regrets nothing from the policies he pushed in during his first term, but that he had “failed to rally the nation, as FDR had once done, behind what I knew to be right”. One statement he would take back and change, though, with a “few simple edits” was his 2008 campaign remarks at a private big-donor fundraiser in California about “bitter” small-town Midwesterns who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren’t like them”. He offers tweaks to a line that plagued him for years as evidence that he was out of touch with working-class white voters.
The late-night US Navy SEALS raid on the Pakistan hideout of Osama bin Laden is not just the most dramatic moment in the memoir but the most presidential moment of Obama’s time in power. Weighing the advice of his advisers – Clinton was 51-49 in favour, Joe Biden and others against – Obama felt it was a 50-50 call but his assessment of the risks showed his analytical rigour and courage in ordering a military operation that could have marred his presidency and legacy.
Any Irish bits?
Not really. The memoir ends with the attack on Bin Laden in early May 2011. Obama did not visit Ireland until the end of that month. Early on, he talks about his shared Irish roots with Biden and how their respective Irish ancestors, both shoemakers, left Ireland just five weeks apart. He even includes references to two Irish banks (not mentioned, but Irish Life & Permanent and Bank of Ireland) failing stress tests as examples of the EU’s haphazard response to the financial crisis.
There could be more Irish bits in the second book if he remembers his trip as fondly as we do.
Simon Carswell is a former Washington Correspondent for The Irish Times. A Promised Land is published by Viking, priced £35