When, in the autumn of 2006, Barack Obama was considering whether to run for the presidency, he met with David Axelrod, one of his closest political allies and advisers. Axlerod’s advice to him was blunt. Running for the presidency, said the man whom Obama refers to as “Axe” throughout the first volume of his memoirs, “can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly misery. It’s a stress test… The whole thing is so crazy, so undignified and brutal, that you have to be a little pathological to do what it takes to win. And I just don’t know if you’ve got that hunger in you. I don’t think you’ll be unhappy if you never become president.”
That essential truth is one of the striking things about A Promised Land, which tells the story of Obama’s childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, his battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, his defeat of John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, his struggle to navigate through the financial crisis and past a hostile Republican Party, and closes in 2011 with the operation to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. His re-election battle against Mitt Romney, the retreats of his second term and its aftermath will be addressed in the second volume.
I don’t know if Obama is the most well-adjusted person ever to become president of the United States, but I can say that I have never reviewed a political memoir whose author was quite so obviously sane. His tendency to see the other point of view means that when he writes of the “half dozen Democrats from conservative states whose priority on every issue was to position themselves some- where, anywhere, to the right of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, thereby winning the prized label of ‘centrist’ from Washington pundits”, it’s hard to tell if he is criticising their lack of grip or sympathising with their political plight.
Obama is not the first charismatic centre-left politician to sweep to power on a platform of hope and change, whose legacy came to be bitterly contested by those he initially inspired. But he is perhaps the only one who, even at the peak of his powers and influence, had the self-awareness to note that his political appeal was that he had become something of a Rorschach test for his supporters: each saw what they wanted to see.
There is a refreshing absence of the usual self-justification and self-delusions that mar most political memoirs, and a seemingly genuine willingness to admit that he writes with the benefit of hindsight: “if all this seems obvious to me now, it wasn’t at the time”, he says after a lengthy digression on the appeal of the Tea Party, the right-wing insurgency that helped inflict on him a painful defeat in the 2010 midterms. Though perhaps the funniest of his self-criticisms comes early on in the book, when talking of his struggles in the primary debates: “I was just plain wordy, and that was a problem,” he writes, which is a fitting reflection on a book that takes 230 pages to get its author into the White House.
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Jokes are otherwise in short supply. Obama does have an eye for a gag and those that are in the book are quite good. But his evident seriousness makes them rare, particularly once he has become a presidential nominee. Amusing anecdotes about his politics shifting to meet the desires of the women he was pursuing at college, or the time that he had to restrain his personal aide or body man – a former basketball professional – in a game with the Iowa firemen (“You know we’re looking for their support, right?” the then senator says) fade away as the work of government begins.
Despite its length and seriousness, the book skips by pleasantly enough. The prose is lucid, thoughtful and candid, but Obama’s comfort in his own skin makes it a strange experience. He writes in detail of the strain that his time in the Illinois State Senate, and the long commute it required, put on his marriage, about Michelle’s doubts about his presidential run and the challenges of office. Yet it feels less revelatory than its contents might suggest, because the Obama you get in the book is pretty much the Obama you’d expect. He is to the left of Bill Clinton, whose “so-called triangulations” Obama admits he was uncomfortable with – although he “appreciated the skill” with which Clinton steered the Democrats back into electability – and to the right of Bernie Sanders, who is not mentioned once. Visibly besotted with his wife, considered – at times to a fault – and incredibly at ease with himself, there’s no doubt that Obama wrote his own book, and wrote it well. But that double pleasure of a memoir, of feeling that the author is giving away more than they intended, at least about themselves, is wholly absent.
Where the book does feel revelatory is in demonstrating one of Obama’s political gifts: his ability to read other people. His evident fondness for Hillary Clinton, in whom he sees echoes of his mother and grandmother – “all of them smart, ambitious women who had chafed under the constraints of their times, having to navigate male egos and social expectations” – contains within it an analysis that explains why she was too polarising to prevent Donald Trump eking out a narrow win in the electoral college in 2016. “If Hillary had become guarded, perhaps overly scripted, who could blame her?” Obama asks. The answer, it turned out, was “an electorally vital group of people in Pennsylvania and Michigan”. But Clinton emerges as one of the stars of the book, at least in Obama’s eyes.
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The surprise loser is John McCain, his opponent in the 2008 election. Obama is keen to praise the late Arizona senator’s character and integrity – his swerving of grubby racialised attacks on the Obamas, and his willingness to refrain from personal vitriol. Obama tries to rescue McCain from one of the biggest blunders in his campaign – forcing his way into talks over the financial rescue plan and then visibly having nothing to offer – describing it as “political malpractice” on the part of McCain’s team. But the picture of McCain in the book is of a man who lacked the core qualities of leadership, one who would ultimately be easily defeated by Obama and whose missteps paved the way for a Republican Party almost as inimical to its 2008 presidential candidate as the man who beat him.
It is his observations of the characters around him that are the truly interesting parts of the book. For his admirers, the most difficult of those will be his liking for George W Bush, as a human being at least. Obama portrays his predecessor as charismatic, politically astute, courteous and warm, and finds it “graceless” that people would protest against Bush on his last day in office. Obama’s liking for people and his tendency to see the other point of view means even his bitterest foes come off quite well – Mitch McConnell, the GOP’s leader in the Senate, is depicted as lacking in policy and focused solely on power, but, when Obama describes him, you are left with the impression of an effective operator.
Perhaps that’s a reflection of how right Axe was about Obama’s character: or perhaps it reflects the fact that this volume covers Obama’s most successful years. That’s one of the many intriguing questions that will be answered in the next book, which details some of his biggest defeats and retreats.
A Promised Land
Viking, 768pp, £35
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed