Editor’s note: Dr. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.
“A Promised Land’’ is published by Crown. The book is 768 pages and retails for $45.
BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
When he was a youngster living in Hawaii and Indonesia, Barack Obama was an indifferent student, passionate basketball player and incessant partygoer. Years later, when his boyhood friends tried to reconcile the man in the White House with the kid they had once known, Obama acknowledges, he was not at all sure he could supply a good answer.
That said, Obama reveals that sometime in high school he began to ask questions: about race, and why some people didn’t think of him as Black; about class, and the chasm between wealthy elites and the impoverished masses. He began to read, and while he never believed that much in destiny, to identify his life’s calling.
In “ Promised Land,’’ Obama provides an account of his upbringing and education; his work as a lawyer and community organizer; his service in the Illinois legislature and United States Senate; and his first term as the 44th president of the United States. Intimate, informative, introspective, and self-critical, “A Promised Land’’ is one of the best memoirs ever written by an American president.
Candid about relationship
“A Promised Land’’ is deeply personal. Obama tells us he tends to live his life about 15 minutes behind schedule. He quit smoking after he signed the Affordable Care Act into law. In the half hour before debates, Obama reveals, he listened to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady,” Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song,” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” – feeling “a whiff of private rebellion, a connection to something grittier and more real” and remembering who he was.
He considers whether his political career stemmed from “a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service.” “No Drama” Obama lets us know when and why he allowed himself to cry.
With remarkable candor, Obama also describes his relationship with Michelle Robinson Obama. On some days, he writes, the couple got down on the carpet with Malia and Sasha and the second floor of the residence filled with laughter. On some evenings, he and Michelle snuggled under a blanket to watch TV.
More often, however, by the time he finished his work, she was asleep and as he lay next to her, he thought about times “when everything between us felt lighter,” wondered whether by seeming calm as crises piled up he had contributed to her loneliness, and “my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.”
Achievements despite opposition
“A Promised Land’’ reviews Obama’s most important accomplishments as president: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; Auto Industry Bailout; Wall Street Reform; and the Affordable Care Act.
These achievements, which averted a depression and stimulated “the longest stretch of continuous growth and job creation in U.S. history,” Obama emphasizes, came despite unrelenting opposition from Congressional Republicans.
Hyperpartisan voters, he adds, rarely reward the party out of power for cooperating with the governing party.
Therefore, Obama indicates, he had to settle for half a loaf (and less on immigration and environmental reforms). He could not solve fundamental structural problems in the United States, including inequality, declining upward mobility, and wage stagnation. Or challenges posed by Russia, Iran, the Arab Spring, and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Sign of things to come
In “A Promised Land,’’ and no doubt in the White House, we learn, Obama oscillated between a sense that abstract principles and high ideals were no match for corruption, nationalism, racism and religious tolerance, “the primal urges that really move us,” and a conviction that the actions of American presidents had and still could “set the world on a better course.”
Obama asks himself whether,” trapped in his “own high-mindedness,” he had failed to sell his programs, reward his supporters, “amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t,” thereby ceding the political narrative to his critics.
And he describes how much “a deep and suffocating cynicism” now governs contemporary American politics.
The acceptance by prominent conservatives of the ignorance of foreign policy and the functions of the federal government exhibited by Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Obama writes, was “a sign of things to come, a larger dark reality in which partisan affiliation and political experience would threaten to blot out everything.”
The rise of the Tea Party in 2010, he indicates, was fueled by xenophobia and racism. Donald Trump, Obama reminds us, perpetuated the lie that he was ineligible to run for president because he was born in Kenya.
Sentiments on falling short
“A Promised Land’’ ends with a signal success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Sitting in the White House, his eyes “clouded with emotion,” Obama felt proud and satisfied. But then, characteristically, another thought intruded.
Was a sense of common purpose possible only “when the goal involved killing a terrorist?” Why hadn’t his fellow Americans – or he himself – felt as exuberant on the night the health care bill passed? Could he – could any leader – rally the country to support initiatives to reduce poverty, improve education opportunities, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
That he hadn’t, Obama took as evidence that his presidency had fallen short of what he wanted it to be.
Although all of us want a president who exudes confidence, these sentiments remind us that we won’t come close to a promised land without knowledgeable, honest, and, yes, humble leaders, who put democratic values and the good of the country above their own partisan and personal interests.