I saw my best friend at Easter and we were finally able to exchange Christmas presents and I was delighted to receive A Promised Land by Barack Obama, which I then spent the next fortnight reading. As an American politics junkie (see, for example, my blogs on Becoming by Michelle Obama and Reading Politics on Obama’s previous two books) this was a fantastic deep dive into American politics and policies for me, going from Obama’s early political career through his election campaign to just over half-way through his first term in office.
It was fascinating to read about Obama’s response to the economic crisis of 2008 that occurred in the final stages of the campaign and as he was taking office and it was interesting to hear of early conversations he had with a friend in 2006 about the sub-prime mortgage market. The pre-work he did between being elected and taking office on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has real parallels with the pre-work Biden has so recently done on Covid-recovery before taking office. It was great to read about the decision to respond with major fiscal stimulus and interesting to read his critique of Cameron for failing to take the same approach in the UK: ‘Predictably, the British economy would fall deeper into a recession’. He also responds to the critique of why he wasn’t bolder in his response, using the opportunity to radical restructure the American economy, by explaining that he did not want to risk the lives and well-being of millions of people with a more radical approach that could have meant the economy taking longer to recover, or tipping into full-scale depression.
Reading Obama’s 2008 view of race relations in America, in the wake of Black Lives Matter in 2020, was also really interesting. His campaign vision of bringing America together on race in a way that would not make white folks uncomfortable felt a long way from current debates on racism and white privilege. However, later in the book he lays out his personal daily experience of racism as well as how intertwined the history of the welfare state and racism have been in America. He also admits that it took him longer to learn than it should have the need to pay closer attention to the women and people of colour on his staff and to hear their experiences of fitting into the workplace, and says that he had tended to discount the role that race and gender played in office politics.
Which brings us on to wider politics. If anyone is still wondering why the filibuster is so problematic to getting anything done in America, you just need to read the experience of Obama’s first-term in office. He has some withering remarks to make on Mitch McConnell, and the successful Republican attempts to block his legislative agenda in the Senate, and he vents his frustration with the non-fact-based arguments of the Right (although see my blog on Michael Sandel‘s critique of Obama’s technocratic view of the world). I enjoyed the mentions of the Pod Save America crew, as well as his amusing remarks about the Merkel-Sarkozy relationship, but he confesses that his belief in doing the right thing was often bad politics and his trouncing at the mid-terms led him to ask whether he had become ‘trapped in his own high-mindedness’, ‘failing to tell the American people a story they could believe in’. There is also the question of whether he tried to do too much too soon, or whether he was always going to lose in the mid-terms, given the length fo time it takes for an economy to bounce-back, so that it was actually wise to do as much as possible. But either way, after an ambitious first year in office he is clear that he didn’t have any political capital left.
Then there were the little moments that brought the human side of the story to life, like his many superstitions on the campaign trail, and the moment at the end of his first day in office when he goes upstairs to the residency and takes stock of the reality of being President. Or hearing about the things he wished he could have said – like the wonderful passage on the outrage people showed about the environmental impact of the Deep Water Horizon oil disaster, when the reality was that people were really interested in having the problem go away so that ‘we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it’.
Finally, for anyone who thinks they’ve got too much on, read this to remind yourself that you haven’t.