North America | World Order, Diplomacy and Governance | Book Reviews

[Barack Obama, A Promised Land (discussion: Madrid, 2020), 928 pp.]

review / Emili J. Blasco

A president's memoirs are always an attempt to justify his political actions. Having employee George W. Bush used less than five hundred pages in "Decision Points" to try to explain the reasons for a more controversial management in principle, that Barack Obama used almost a thousand pages for the first part of his memoirs (A promised land The fact that no US president has ever required so much space in this exercise of wanting to tie up his bequest.

It is true that Obama has a taste for the pen, with some previous books in which he has already demonstrated good storytelling, and it is possible that this literary inclination has won him over. But probably more decisive has been Obama's vision of himself and his presidency: the conviction of having a mission statement, as the first African-American president, and his ambition to bend the arc of history. As time goes by and Obama starts to become just another in the list of presidents, his book vindicates the historic character of his person and his achievements.

The first third of A Promised Land is particularly interesting. There is a brief overview of his life before entrance in politics and then the detail of his degree program to the White House. This part has the same inspirational charge that made so attractive My Father's Dreams, the book that Obama published in 1995 when he launched his campaign for the Illinois Senate (in Spain it appeared in 2008, following his campaign for the presidency). We can all draw very useful lessons for our own self-improvement staff: the idea of being masters of our destiny, of becoming aware of our deepest identity, and the security that this gives us to carry out many enterprises of great value and transcendence; to put all our efforts into a goal and take advantage of opportunities that may not come again; in final, to always think outside the box (when Obama saw that his work as senator of Illinois had little impact, his decision was not to leave politics, but to jump to the national level: He ran for senator in Washington and from there, just four years later, he reached the White House). The pages are also rich in lessons on political communication and election campaigns.

But when the narrative begins to address the presidential term, which began in January 2009, that inspirational tone drops. What was once a succession of generally positive adjectives towards everyone begins to include diatribes against his Republican opponents. And here is the point that Obama is unable to overcome: giving himself all the moral credit and denying it to those whose votes in the congress disagreed with the legislation promoted by the new president. It is true that Obama had a very frontal civil service examination from the Republican leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives, but they also supported some of his initiatives, as Obama himself acknowledges. For the rest, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Large swathes of Republicans were quick to jump on the bandwagon, as the Tea Party tide in the 2010 midterm elections soon made clear (in a movement that would eventually lead to support for Trump), but Obama had also arrived with the most left-leaning positions in US politics in living memory. With his idealistic drive, Obama had set little example of bipartisan effort in his time in the Illinois and Washington Senate; when some of his reforms from the White House were blocked in the congress, instead of seeking accommodation - accepting a politics of the possible - he took to the streets to pit citizens against politicians who opposed his transformations, further entrenching the trenches of one side against the other.

The British historian Niall Ferguson has pointed out that the Trump phenomenon would not be understood without Obama's previous presidency, although the bitter political divide in the United States is probably a matter of a deep current in which leaders play a less central role than we might suppose. Obama saw himself as ideally suited, because of his cultural mix (black, but raised by his white mother and grandparents), to bridge the widening rift in US society, but he was unable to build the necessary ideological bridges. Bill Clinton faced a similar Republican blockade, in the congress led by Newt Gingrich, and made compromises that were useful: he reduced ideological baggage and brought an economic prosperity that relaxed public life.

A Promised Land includes many of Obama's reflections. He generally provides the context necessary to understand the issues, for example in the gestation of the 2008 financial crisis. In foreign policy he details the state of relations with major powers: animosity towards Putin and suspicion of China, among other issues. There are areas with different possible ways forward where Obama leaves no room for a legitimate alternative position: thus, in a particularly emblematic topic , he charges Netanyahu without admitting any mistakes of his own in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This is something that other reviews of the book have noted: the absence of self-criticism (beyond admitting sins of omission in not having been as bold as he might have wished), and the failure to admit that in some respects perhaps the opponent might have been right.

The narrative is well-paced internally, despite the many pages. The volume ends in 2011, at a random point in time determined by the anticipated length of a second submission; however, it has a sufficiently strong climax: the operation against Osama bin Laden, for the first time told in the first person by the person at the highest level of command. Although the Degree involvement of other hands in the essay of the work is unknown, it has a point of lyricism that connects directly with Los sueños de mi padre (My Father's Dreams) and which financial aid leads us to attribute it, at least to a large extent, to the former president himself.

The book contains many episodes of the Obamas' domestic life. Obama's constant compliments to his wife, admiration for his mother-in-law and constant references to his devotion to his two daughters might be considered unnecessary, especially as they recur, in a political book. Nonetheless, they give the story the tone staff that Obama has sought to adopt, as well as giving human warmth to someone who has often been accused of having a public image of being cold, distant and overly reflective.

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