Barack Obama was a political superstar who overcame astronomical odds, but he was also the product of a ruthlessly professional operation
I have few souvenirs from my time in Number 10 but one that’s treasured is a box of M&Ms complete with presidential seal and Barack Obama’s signature. They were supposed to be a snack on Air Force One, but I keep them next to a photograph of me looking starstruck shaking his hand at a White House dinner.
They remind me of watching Obama up close over the course of several transatlantic visits. He was clearly a political superstar who had overcome astronomical odds to become not only the most powerful person on the planet but the first black President. He married an A-list star’s charisma with an unfazed dignity and—crucially—a willingness to delve deep on policy.
I also learned that the fairytale of his rise missed out the reality that he was also the product of a ruthlessly professional operation that knew how to manipulate things.
When I exchanged notes with his team about potential photo opportunities with David Cameron, questions like, “Where are the RPs?” came back. When I asked what that meant, I was told “Real People”. It made them sound like props.
I also saw that he wasn’t without flaws. There was a tendency to lean on soaring rhetoric, wearing out its power describing the day-to-day, or, worse, glossing over inconvenient truths.
He could also be alarmingly long-winded. I sat in several press conferences watching my boss shift from foot to foot as Obama eased into the tenth minute of an answer to a question, providing an exhaustive tour of the horizon with no sign of stopping—more professor than President.
So, I wondered which Obama would turn up in his memoir. The early impressions weren’t great. First there’s that title, A Promised Land, which may be intended as ambiguous but in reality, feels hubristic. That view is compounded by the quote from Robert Frost’s “Kitty Hawk”:
Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite.
The accompanying publicity materials come with a playlist of songs that supposedly provided the soundtrack to his Presidency. Then there’s the realisation that the 700 closely typed pages are merely the first half of his story, with another volume to come (this one takes us up to the killing of Osama bin Laden).
My fears were soon allayed. Obama is a warm narrator, treating the reader like an old friend invited to a fireside chat. He’s also a gifted writer, striking the perfect balance between colour, detail, self-deprecation and the self-justification which is the necessary evil of most political memoirs.
The preface acknowledges the fear and loathing that characterises so much of current US politics, a mile away from Obama’s hope and change, making clear the promised land may be a pipe dream, asking key questions about America: “Do we care to match the reality to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of . . . equality of opportunity . . . apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed to reserving those things for a privileged few?”
He admits that at times he sees merit in the argument of sceptics who believe America has never been about equality and the real story has too often been “conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism”. Despite that, he asserts he isn’t ready to abandon “the possibility of America”. The book isn’t always convincing in explaining why. It’s far better capturing the hoopla surrounding a candidate and President and also when at its most personal.
Obama never misses an opportunity to praise his wife’s beauty, parenting skills and wisdom but he also reveals a brutal critic. When he tells Michelle he is running for office again, she angrily accuses him of basing his plan on having “magic beans in his pocket”, before telling him he can’t count on her, in fact, “You shouldn’t even count on my vote”. Ouch. Politics can chew up and spit out those who make it their lives but there can be a heavier price for those who love them. It’s hard not to feel deep sympathy for Michelle during the late-night rows in the early years of their marriage as she sacrificed her dreams in pursuit of his. Later, Obama acknowledges the loneliness she felt, isolated in the White House, while the world fawned over him.
He isn’t always so self-aware. More than once he writes of Ted Kennedy as a giant among men, apparently not seeing that this grates with his lectures about how the rich and powerful can abuse their positions and escape justice. But I was struck more often than not by his thoughtfulness and empathy. His stories of going to visit soldiers who have been wounded horrifically in Afghanistan show he understands how an individual’s life can be upended or destroyed by a President’s whim. His anger at bankers who refused to take responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis and continued to justify spectacular bonuses is real. Each night he insisted on having ten letters placed in his papers—a cross-section of the mountain of post received daily at the White House. That helped keep him in touch and it’s to his credit that he spent time penning hand-written replies.
I had the privilege of sitting in on an intimate dinner at the White House with Obama. The staff were all black or Hispanic and it was clear, as he mentions in the book, until his presidency this had been yet another signal of the racial divide in America. As the evening wore on and he relaxed he spoke of images on the news that had angered him. In a case that foreshadowed the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, a man was shown being held in a chokehold by police after being caught selling cigarettes second hand. Obama rightly saw this as a disgusting over-reaction, and yet it also later became clear that he felt he had to contain this anger when talking to the American people about the case.
There are frequent mentions of how his campaign team constantly urged him to avoid the issue of race because it would play badly with the coalition of voters he needed to deliver and maintain power. Part of him understands, that’s politics—and the first rule is you can’t do anything unless you win; the second is you will probably lose part of your soul in the process.
For the most part, the tone is optimistic, so it’s a shock when Obama reveals a deeper, darker side. Michelle asks him at one stage, “God, Barack . . . When is it ever going to be enough?” It seems the answer is, never, even for a man who came so far, so fast. On a visit to Egypt when he spies an ancient portrait daubed on a wall he writes:
The Pharoah, the slave and the vandal, long turned to dust, just as every speech I delivered, every law I passed and decision I made would soon be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.
Of course, he will be long remembered.
A Promised Land makes a more than decent fist of showing Barack Hussein Obama was a good President, but more than that, it reveals repeatedly he was an exceptional human being and the greatest communicator of his time, fully deserving of his special place in history.
George W. Bush told David Cameron not to struggle too hard to burnish his legacy, because he’d either succeed or fail in comparison to whoever came after. By that mark, Obama excelled. In often sparkling prose describing everything from the killing of bin Laden to the “real gangster shit”, as his aide puts it, required to deliver a deal on climate change, he helps us see a moderate yet driven man who we could do with now more than ever. Closing the book and comparing him to today’s batch of politicians, I was left with one question: will we ever see his like again?
A Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Viking, 768pp, £35