Obama Memoir Mixes Inspiration with Frustration
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, January 18 / 21
One of my holiday season gifts (to myself) was Barack Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land, which details his early years before politics until late in his first term as U.S. President. It is an expensive, 700+ page book, so not for the faint-hearted, but a very interesting chronicle of his campaigns, his political relationships and the policy issues he was most engaged with. It is particularly timely in this explosive period in the “excited states.”
Of course, when politicians write their memoirs, they may be accused of explaining away their failures, justifying their beliefs, and generally revising history. I found, however, that Obama, several times in the book, openly expressed self-doubt and regret at things he and his administration didn’t do or could have done better. At the same time, he doesn’t spare his opposition, the Republican Party and its leadership, from strong criticism.
One of the things I found useful in the book is that it doesn’t always follow a chronological order, but divides itself up more around issues that Obama had to deal with, such as health care, climate change, the major economic recession that took place leading up to his first term and then for the next year or two, overseas wars and terrorism, and so on. For each of these issues, he starts by offering a few pages of background information which I found particularly well done.
An early statement by Obama is that it is shameful that a modern-day democracy like the USA doesn’t provide universal health care to its citizens. A big part of his first term effort was to bring in the Affordable Care Act which was bitterly opposed by the Republicans, and by more conservative Democrats, especially if they were worried about losing their seats in the mid-term elections. He also faced the wrath of the corporate sector, for instance insurance companies and from doctors and hospitals who were profiting mightily from the private health care system.
In his effort to improve the natural environment, Obama describes being caught, in his mind, between environmental movements who wanted too much, too quickly and the oil and related sectors who opposed change. An off-shore drilling disaster in the Gulf Coast was a destructive, frightening feature of his first term. His harshest critics, in some ways, were his young children who asked frequently what he was doing to save the planet. One of the fascinating chapters in the book tells the story from his point of view of his effort to broker a climate change deal that would be acceptable to very different interests, such as the European Union, India and China.
Obama describes his foreign policy efforts, especially in relation to the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace” process, tensions with Iran, the Arab Spring and civil wars in Libya and Syria. As he sees it, the “old school” military brass did not appreciate his interference after having carte blanche with George W. Bush. Obama found himself philosophically siding with the younger, more progressive defense staffers in his administration. His description of the British, French, German, Israeli, Indian, UN and other leadership personalities involved in global negotiations on foreign policy, war and climate are a highlight of the book.
I’m no economist, so I’ll admit that the long section on the real estate bubble and failure of banks in the US in 2008-09 was a tough go for me. But it is an important factor in Obama’s first term and what he was able to accomplish, as whatever other issues he focused on, the weak US and global economy was always a limiting factor. The other one, a source of constant frustration for Obama, was the opposition he faced from the Republican Party. In his words, it seemed that they had decided to oppose him no matter what he did, as they had decided that to help him in any way would not bring them back into power, but just make him look successful. Thus, he accuses them of putting the fortunes of their party over the best interests of their country.
Where I became misty-eyed in reading A Promised Land is when Obama writes about his reason for being, what we Canadians call our raison-d'ętre. He never expected that he’d rise so quickly or attain such high office, but he felt that people saw in him a chance for real change in their lives, especially after the previous administration. He was deeply affected when he saw poverty, poor health care, and environmental degradation and really wanted to make a difference. While those parts of the book, where he stops and talk about his own background, his beliefs and hopes, are truly inspiring, in many ways the book is about “realpolitik” and the frustrations that confront an idealist in the political process.
Some people blame Obama for not being strong enough, or for being too “middle of the road.” Many of his policy and legislative ideas were blocked or watered down by compromise. And then along came a fellow that we’ve been hearing about since, a Mr. Donald J. Trump, toward the end of this first volume, and we know where all of that led! I look forward to Obama’s Volume 2.
Zack Gross is Board Chair of The Marquis Project, a Manitoba-based international development organization.
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