This is a chapter wise summary and highlight of Barack Obama’s autobiography A Promised Land. I started reading this book in mid-December 2021 and finished it in mid-Feburary 2022. I then spent around two weeks going through the book all over again, typing down all my favourite parts that I wanted to carry with me for a long long time, and then writing the one-paragraph summary for each chapter of the book. My goal was that if years later I ask myself can we revisit Obama’s story, the answer should be: YES WE CAN!
In this chapter, Barack talks about his early days, first, of the white house and then, of the time when we are at crossroads in life. He talks about the influence of her mother on his way of thinking. How she had talked her into getting inside the institutions. He talks of his student life, his idealism, and his pursuit of finding meaning.
“The world is complicated, Bar. That’s why it’s interesting.”
“You know, Barry,” she said, “there are people in the world who only think about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want. They put other people down to make themselves feel important. “Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.
“So,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Which kind of person do you want to be?”
And then there was the unsettling fact, that, despite whatever my mother might claim, the bullies, cheats, and self-promoters seemed to be doing quite well, while those she considered good and decent people seemed to get screwed an awful lot.
Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognise the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get know.
Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”
― N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society
I lived like a monk—reading, writing, filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals. I got lost in my head, preoccupied with questions that seemed to layer themselves one over the next. What made some movements succeed when portions of a cause were absorbed by conventional politics, or was it a sign that the cause had been hijacked? When was compromise acceptable and when was it selling out, and how did one know the difference?
“I don’t know, Bar,” she told me one Christmas. “You can spend a lifetime working outside institutions. But you might get more done trying to change those institutions from the inside.
“Plus, take it from me,” she said with a rueful laugh. “Being broke is overrated.”
He decides to run for congress. Michelle is not happy with this decision, yet she supports him. He loses. He learns what being a politician is, what politics is, and he finds his voice, and his kind of politics, a different kind.
Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies.
“Have you ever noticed that if there’s a hard way and an easy way, you choose the hard way every time? Why do you think that is?”
Springfield had a special designation for junior members in the minority like me—”mushrooms,” because “you’re fed shit and kept in the dark.”
It confirmed, too, what I already knew about myself: that whatever preferences I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose.
“You’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, Barack,” he said. “The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling cars. Or the dry cleaner down the street. You start believing it’s more than that, it’ll drive you crazy.”
I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always banked on, had been used upon a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.
In other words, I had become the very thing that, as a younger man, I had warned myself against. I had become a politician—and not a very good one at that.
After losing Congress, Barack resigns to a quiet life, with small satisfaction. But the fire in his belly was too hot to stay calm, as Michelle said: if there was a hard way and an easy way—Barack would take the hard way. When he started meeting people; he realized how divided America was, and there he saw his race. His kind of politics was the politics of bridge-building, politics of unity and hope. He launches a Senate race. He tells Michelle that if he loses, it could be his last act in politics, and sells her some kind of magic beans. She relentlessly gives him her yes, but not her vote. He wins the race and writes a book to pay off their debts.
After losing the race to Congress Obama retired to a quieter life, full of small satisfactions, content with balance with the work and the family. Holding Malia’s hand as they walked across the park; watching baby Sasha laugh and laugh as he nibbled her feet; listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her resting against his shoulder, as she drifted off to sleep in the middle of an old movie.
As long as the residents of a district/state/nation remained strangers to one another, our politics would never truly change. It would always be too easy for politicians to feed the stereotypes that pitted Black against white, immigrant against native-born, rural interests against those of cities. If, on the other hand, a campaign could somehow challenge America’s reigning political assumptions about how divided we were, well then just maybe it would be possible to build a new covenant between its citizen. Ultimately wasn’t this what I was after—a politics that bridged America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divides, as well as the many strands of my own life?
The kind of bridge-building politics I imagined wasn’t suited to a congressional race. To really shake things up, I realised, I needed to speak to and for the widest possible audience. And the best way to do that was to run for a statewide office—like, for example, the U.S. Senate.
When I think back now on the brashness—the sheer chutzpah—of me wanting to launch a U.S. Senate race, fresh as I was off a resounding defeat, it’s hard not to admit the possibility that I was just desperate for another shot, like an alcoholic rationalising one last drink. Except that’s not how it felt. Instead, as I rolled the idea around in my head, I experienced a great clarity—not so much that I would win, but that I could win, and that if I did win, I could have a big impact.
Along with this clarity came a parallel realisation: If I didn’t pull it off, it would be time to leave politics—and so long as I had given my best effort, I could do so without regret.
Politics doesn’t have to be what people think it is. It can be something more.
“If you lose, we’ll be deeper in the hole,” she said. “And what happens if you win? How are we supposed to maintain two households, in Washington and Chicago, when we can barely keep up with one?”
“In other words,” she said, “you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you’re telling me. You have some magic beans, and you’re going to plant them, and overnight a huge beanstalk is going to grow high into the sky, and you’ll climb up the beanstalk, kill the giant who lives in the clouds, and then bring home a goose that lays golden eggs. Is that it?”
“Something like that,” I said.
Talking to voters in the early days of the U.S. Senate campaign, Barack addressed the topics he was running on—ending tax breaks for companies that were moving jobs overseas, or promoting renewable energy, or making it easier for kids to afford college.
Over time, though, I focused more on listening. And the more I listened, the more people opened up. They’d tell me about how it felt to be laid off after a lifetime of work, or what it was like to have your home foreclosed upon or to have to sell the family farm. They’d tell me about not being able to afford health insurance, and how sometimes they broke the pills their doctors prescribed in half, hoping to make their medicine last longer. They spoke of young people moving away because there were no good jobs in their town, or others having to drop out of college just short of graduation because they couldn’t cover the tuition.
“Most people, wherever they’re from, whatever they look like, are looking for the same thing. They’re not trying to get filthy rich. They don’t expect someone else to do what they can do for themselves. But they do expect that if they’re willing to work, they should be able to find a job that supports a family. They expect that they shouldn’t go bankrupt just because they get sick. They expect that their kids should be able to get a good education, one that prepares them for this new economy, and they should be able to afford college if they’ve put in the effort. They want to be safe, from criminals or terrorists. And they figure that after a lifetime of work, they should be able to retire with dignity and respect.”
Whether in sports or politics, it’s hard to understand that precise nature of momentum.
She looked at me and shook her head, incredulous. “I can’t believe you actually pulled this whole thing off. The campaign. The book. All of it.”
I nodded and kissed her forehead. “Magic beans, baby. Magic beans.”
Change needed to come faster—and I was going to have to decide what role I would play in bringing it about.
Barack now has his eyes on the presidential race. He doesn’t think he’s ready, but people see a hope in him. And Teddy Kennedy tells him that you don’t choose the time, the time chooses you. Michelle is not happy with Barack running for president, she doesn’t want the family to be exposed to this level. Barack reflects upon why he wants to run for the president, is it merely his vanity or something more?
The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful. I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal tribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.
“I won’t be wading in early,” Teddy said. “Too many friends. But I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.”
“Did you say we? she said. “You mean you, Barack. Not we. This is your thing. I’ve supported you the whole time, because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes our family. You know that. And now, finally, we have some stability…even if it’s still not normal, not the way I’d choose for us to live…and now you tell me you’re going to run for president?”
“God, Barack…When is it going to be enough?”
Why would I put her through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker—a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed race? “It’s like you have a hole to fill,” Michelle had told me early in our marriage, after a stretch in which she’d watched me work myself to near exhaustion. “That’s why you can’t slow down.”
Maybe it was impossible to disentangle one’s motives.
If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania, it appeared I was passing the test.
My deepest fear, it turned out, was no longer of irrelevance, or being stuck in the Senate, or even losing a presidential race. The fear came from the realisation that I could win.
“So my question is why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?”
“Right,” I said. “Why me?” I mentioned several of the reasons we’d talked about before. That I might be able to spark a new kind of politics, or get a new generation to participate, or bridge the divisions in the county better than other candidates could.
“But who knows?” I said, looking around the table. “There’s not guarantee we can pull it off. Here’s one thing I know for sure, though. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that would be worth it.”
In his campaign, Barack meets new friends who help him communicate to America in a way that reaches the hearts of his voters. He learns how to debate effectively. He talks about David Axelrod (political consultant) and Paul Tewes (political strategist).
Looking back, I realise I was doing what most of us tend to do when we’re uncertain or floundering: We reach for what feels familiar, what we think we’re good at. I knew policy; I knew how to consume and process information. It took a while to figure out that my problem wasn’t a lack of ten-point plan. Rather, it was my general inability to boil issues down to their essence, to tell a story that helped explain an increasingly uncertain world to the American people and make them feel that I, as president, could help them navigate it.
My head was crammed with too many facts and too few answers. I stumbled, mumbled, hemmed and hawed onstage.
“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. Take whatever question they give you, give ‘em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it…and then talk about what you want to talk about.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
The most effective debate answers, it seemed, were designed not to illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy, or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side.
Then again, a president wasn’t a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot, hired to carry out some narrow, specialised task. Mobilising public opinion, shaping working coalitions—that was the job. Whether I liked it or not, people were moved by emotions, not facts.
In the early weeks, Tewes hung signs on every wall in every office with a motto he’d authored: RESPECT, EMPOWER, INCLUDE. If we were serious about a new kind of politics, he explained, then it started right there on the ground, with every organiser committed to listening to people, respecting what they had to say, and treating everybody—including out opponents and their supporters—the way we wanted to be treated.
When, during our team’s weekly conference call, a new organiser made a joke about why he’d joined the campaign saying “hating pantsuits” (a reference to Hillary’s favourite campaign attire), Tewes admonished him in a lengthy rant for all the other organisers to hear. “It’s not what we stand for,” he said, “not even in private.”
The team took this to heart, particularly because Tewes practised what he preached. Despite the occasional intemperate outburst, he never failed to show people how much they mattered. When Marygrace’s uncle died, Tewes declared National Marygrace Day, and had everyone in the office wear pink. He also had me record a message announcing that for that one day, he would have to do everything Marygrace said.
Politics could be less about power and positioning and more about community and connection.
“Fired up!” ”Ready to go!”
It was part of the brutal nature of modern politics, I was discovering, the difficulty of competing in a game where there were no clearly defined rules, a game in which your opponents are not merely trying to put a ball through a basket or push it across your goal line, but are instead trying to convince the broad public—at least implicitly, more often explicitly—that in matters of judgement, intelligence, values, and character, they are more worthy than you.
Barack wins Iowa but then loses the next caucus to Hillary. He talks about maintaining his calm in adversities. He’s thinking of Toot and recalls her telling him – “you just do what needs to be done”. Obama is beginning to find his voice — his voice of unity, his audacity of hope, his voice of not Black America, or White America but the United States of America.
Having spent the previous year as David, I was suddenly cast as Goliath—and as happy as I was about our victory, the new role felt awkward.
“When we’ve been told we’re not ready,” I said, “or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can.”
I’ve often been asked about this personality trait—my ability to maintain composure in the middle of crisis. Sometimes I’ll say that it’s just a matter of temperament, or a consequence of being raised in Hawaii, since it’s hard to get stressed when it’s eighty degrees and sunny and you’re five minutes from the beach. If I’m talking to a group of young people, I’ll describe how over time I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs.
If you asked Toot about any of these things, though, she’d maintain that she’d started working at the bank not because of any particular passion for finance or wish to help others, but because our family needed the money, and that’s what had been available to her.
“Sometimes,” she told me, “you just do what needs to be done.”
She taught me to marry passion with reason, to not get overly excited when life was going well, and to not get too down when it went badly.
THERE IS NOT a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.
God sees the world through the eyes of those most oppressed.
“Every generation is limited by what it knows,” Dr. Moss told me. “Those of us who were part of the movement, giants like Martin, lieutenants and foot soldiers like me…we are the Moses generation. We marched, we sat in, we went to jail, sometimes in defiance of our elders, but we were in fact building on what they had done. We got us out of Egypt, you could say. But we could only travel so far.
“You, Barack, are part of the Joshua generation. You and others like you are responsible for the next leg of journey. Folks like me can offer the wisdom of our experience. Perhaps you can learn from some of our mistakes. But ultimately it will be up to you, with God’s help, to build on what we’ve done, and lead our people and this country out of the wilderness.”
He talks about being Black in America. People have now placed all their hopes on him, and he’s worried that he’s going to disappoint them. He gets a security detail called Renegade and they cage the Bear.
Du Bois writes, Black Americans remain the perpetual “Other,” always on the outside looking in, ever feeling their “two-ness,” defined not by what they are but what they can never be.
At some basic level people were no longer seeing me, I realised, with all my quirks and shortcomings. Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct.
I realised, too, that if supporters could mould bits and pieces of me into an outsized symbol of hope, then the vague fears of detractors could just as readily congeal into hate. And it was in response to this disturbing truth I’d seen my life change the most.
To the relief of his keepers, the bear became accustomed to captivity. (Barack Obama on Renegade—his secret service detail)
And while there are moments in politics, as in life, when avoidance, if not retreat, is the better part of valour, there are other times when the only option is to steel yourself and go broke.
“To the audacity of hope,” I said. Clinking our bottles, we started to laugh as hard as before.
In the middle of the campaign, he takes a break and goes to Hawaii with his family.
Even more than back home, I felt the immensity of the challenges that awaited me if I won, the grace I’d need to do the job.
Splashing in the ocean with the girls, letting them bury me in sand without having to tell them I had to get on a conference call or leave for the airport—it was worth it. Watching the sun go down over the Pacific with my arms wrapped around Michelle, just listening to the wind and rustling palms—worth it.
Seeing Toot hunched over on her living room couch, barely able to raise her head but still smiling with quiet satisfaction as her great-granddaughters laughed and played on the floor, and then feeling her mottled, blue-veined hand squeeze mine for perhaps the last time.
“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Financial crisis looms over America — housing market collapses. Obama’s economy was going to tax the rich and strengthen the unions. He was going to be the president of commoners. He was going to bridge the inequality that had spread over America like a plague. The government’s role in a modern world is to ensure fair play in the marketplace and to save capitalism from itself. He talks about his favourite music. He talks about the John McCain who once defended Barack in his own rally when a bystander said he’s afraid of a Black President. And he talks about Sarah Palin, John’s running mate who according to Barack stood for everything that was wrong with the modern Republican Party. Toot passes away and Obama dedicates his closing statement of the campaign to all the unsung heroes like his Toot. “That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
“The entire financial system. It’s all a house of cards waiting to topple.”
“Apparently I’ve underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade.”
By 2007, the American economy was not only producing greater inequality than almost every other wealthy nation but also delivering less upward mobility.
Under the banner of economic freedom—an “ownership society” was the phrase President Bush used—Americans had been fed a steady tax cuts for the wealthy and seen collective bargaining laws go unenforced. There had been efforts to privatise or cut the social safety net, and federal budgets had consistently underinvested in everything from early childhood education to infrastructure. All this further accelerated inequality, leaving families ill-equipped to navigate even minor economic turbulence.
I promised to raise taxes on high-income Americans to pay for vital investments in education, research, and infrastructure. I promised to strengthen unions and raise the minimum wage as well as to deliver universal healthcare and make college more affordable.
I wanted people to understand that there was a precedent for bold government action. FDR had saved capitalism from itself, laying the foundation for a post-World War II boom. I often talked about how strong labour laws had helped build a thriving middle class and a thriving domestic market, and how—by driving out unsafe products and fraudulent schemes—consumer protection laws had actually helped legitimate business prosper and grow.
I wanted to restore in the minds of the American people the crucial role that government had always played in expanding opportunity, fostering competition and fair dealing, and making sure the marketplace worked for everybody. (Today, the market itself is owned by a select few, think of Amazon)
There are moments in an election battle, as in life, when all the possible pathways save one are suddenly closed; when what feels like a wide distribution of probable outcomes narrows to the inevitable.
Ultimately it was rap that got my head in the right place, two songs especially: Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Both were about defying odds and putting it all on the line; how it felt to spin something out of nothing; getting by on wit, hustle, and fear disguised as bravado. The lyrics felt tailored to my early underdog status. And as I sat alone in the back of the Secret Service van on the way to a debate site, in my crisp uniform and dimpled tie, I’d not my head to the beat of those songs, feeling a whiff of private rebellion, a connection to something grittier and more real than all the fuss and deference that now surrounded me. It was a way to cut through the artifice and remember who I was.
Through Palin, it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party—xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy towards Black and brown folks—were finding their way to centre stage.
When a man at a Minnesota rally announced into the microphone that he was afraid of having Barack Obama as a president, McCain wouldn’t have it.
“I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States,” he said, causing his audience to boo lustily. Answering another question, he said, “We want to fight, and I will fight. But we will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful and let’s make sure we are because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
“The thing about getting old, Bar,” Toot had told me, “is that you’re the same person inside.” I remember her eyes studying me through her thick bifocals, as if to make sure I was paying attention. “You’re trapped in this doggone contraption that starts falling apart. But it’s still you. You understand?”
Another time. Another life. Modest and without consequence to the rest of the world. But one that had given me love. Once Toot was gone, there would be no one left who remembered that life, or remembered me in it.
It was a beautiful night, cool with a light rain.
“She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America,” I said. “They’re not famous. Their names aren’t in the newspaper. But each and every day they work hard. They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and their grandchildren. They aren’t seeking the limelight—all they try to do is just do the right thing.
“And in this crowd, there are a lot of quiet heroes like that—mothers, and fathers, grandparents, who have worked hard and sacrificed all their lives. And the satisfaction that they get is seeing that their children and maybe their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren live a better life than they did.
“That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
It was as good a closing argument for the campaign as I felt that I could give.
I am told, quietly contemplating who we are as a people—and the arc of this thing we call democracy.
Barack would soon be the President. President-elect assembles the best people to help him run the country. He talks about his life in-between, after he knew he would be the president, and before he actually assumed the office.
I would be the one who made the final decisions on issues that rose to my attention and who explained those decisions to the country at large.
My mother-in-law never complained about anything. Whenever I interacted with her, I’d remember that, no matter what kind of mess I was dealing with, no one had forced me to be the president and that I needed to just suck it up and do my job.
“God is with you,” he said, “in the furnace.”
I would soon be vested with the authority to blow up the world.
What does it mean to be a good president or for that matter a good leader? I think, like love, it means to know that even on having the authority to blow up our whole world, they won’t.
To protest a man in the final hour of his presidency seemed graceless and unnecessary. More generally, I was troubled by what these last-minute protests said about the divisions that were churning across the country—and the weakening of whatever boundaries of decorum had once regulated politics.
This too would be part of the job: finding a way not to take such attacks personally, while avoiding the temptation to shut myself off—as perhaps my predecessor had too often done—from those shouting on the other side of the glass.
They asked him once what had been secret to writing one of the four or five greatest speeches in American history. Simple, he said: Whenever he and Kennedy sat down to write, they told themselves, “Let’s make this good enough to be in a book of the greatest speeches someday.”
Barack starts working as a president, it’s another job behind all the pomp and power, he lets you know. Like a new car, the presidency depreciates from day one. He inherits a broken economy and to get it on the track again he gets the RECOVERY ACT to vote. Even though he did not need the support of Republicans, he still asks for it because what better way to reach across the aisle than from a position of strength. He gets zero Republican votes. And that would be the recurring theme of his presidency, Republicans choosing party over country.
The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.
“That’s definitely the worst briefing any incoming president has gotten since FDR in 1932!” he said. He sounded like a boy impressed by the sight of a particularly grisly wound.
“Goolsbee,” I said, “that’s not even my worst briefing this week.”
“Renegade to Secondary Hold,” which was their discreet way of saying I was going to the bathroom.
It’s worth pointing out here—only because people were often surprised to hear it—that a First Family pays out of pocket for any new furniture, just as it does for everything else it consumes, from groceries to toilet paper to extra staff for a president’s private dinner party. The White House budget does set aside funds for a new president to redo the Oval Office, but despite some worn upholstery on the chairs and sofas, I decided that a historic recession wasn’t the best time to be going through fabric swatches.
I had argued that people across the country weren’t as divided as out politics suggested, and that to do big things we need to move past partisan bickering. And what better way to make an honest effort to reach across the aisle than from a position of strength, at a time when I didn’t necessarily need support from House Republicans to get my agenda passed?
The Recovery Act passed the House 244 to 188 with precisely zero Republican votes. It was the opening salvo in a battle plan that Republican leaders would deploy with impressive discipline for the next eight years: a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.
Over time, my staff and I became so resigned to this style of “he said / he said” coverage that we could joke about it. In duelling press conference today, the debate over the shape of planet Earth heated up, with President Obama—who claims the Earth is round—coming under withering attack from Republicans who insist that the White House has covered up documents proving Earth is “flat”.
For them, all taxes for confiscatory, paving the road to socialism; all regulations were a betrayal of free-market principles and the American way of life. They saw my victory as a mortal threat—which is why, shortly after my inauguration, they pulled together a conclave of some of America’s wealthiest conservatives in a smartly manicured resort in Indian Wells, California, to map out a strategy to fight back. They didn’t want compromises and consensus. They wanted war. And they let it be known that Republican politicians without the stomach to resist my policies at every turn would not only find donations drying up but also might find themselves the target of a well-financed primary challenge.
Fire is everywhere. People are losing jobs and their homes. But above all, they are losing faith on the American Dream. Their government has failed them. Obama’s Administration is the fire department. He discovers that things are not black and white, solutions to problems are not obvious, it’s a game of probabilities. He invents a process that helps him sleep at night knowing that he has taken his best chances. And yet there will be days, no matter how good your process is, you’ll still screw up. He’s finally able to restore normalcy, but it gets no attention.
I cannot look at my children and tell them honestly that if you work hard enough and sacrifice enough, then anything is possible. I have learned today that you can make all the right choices, do all the right things, and it still might not be enough, because your government has failed you.
“I remember my dad talking about talking about the American Dream when I was a kid,” the American Dream when I was a kid,” he said. “How the most important thing was to work hard. Buy a house. Raise a family. Do things right. What happened to that? When did that become just a load of…?” He trailed off, looking pained before wiping the sweat from his face and restarting his mower.
He hadn’t lost his home, but he’d lost faith in the shared enterprise of our country, its larger deal.
If your next-door neighbour’s house is on fire, you don’t want the fire department dispatcher asking whether it was caused by lightning or by someone smoking in bed before agreeing to send a fire truck; you just want the fire put out before it reaches your house. Mass foreclosures were equivalent of a five-alarm fire that was destroying everyone’s home values and taking economy down with it. And from our perspective, at least, we were the fire department.
When did political correctness became incorrect?
It was a familiar trick, I thought to myself, the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand that had become a staple of conservative pundits everywhere whatever the issue: taking language that was once used by the disadvantaged to highlight a societal ill and turning it on its ear. The problem is no longer discrimination against the people of colour, the argument goes; it’s “reverse racism,” with minorities “playing the race card” to get an unfair advantage. The problems isn’t sexual harassment in the workplace; it’s humourless “feminazis” beating men over the head with their political correctness. The problem is not bankers using the market as their personal casino, or corporations suppressing wages by busting unions and offshoring jobs. It’s the lazy and shiftless, along with their liberal Washington allies, intent on mooching off the economy’s real “makers and the doers.”
Such arguments had nothing to do with facts. They were impervious to analysis. They were deeper into the realm of myth, redefining what was fair, reassigning victimhood, conferring on people like those traders in Chicago that most precious of gifts: the conviction of innocence, as well as the righteous indignation that comes with it.
“There’s only one thing you can count on, Mr. President,” he said. “On any given moment in any given day, somebody somewhere is screwing up.”
What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster; a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended); a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse.
But with a sound process—one in which I was able to empty my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles—I realised I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better. A good process also meant I could allow each member of the team to feel ownership over the decision—which meant better execution and less relitigation of White House decisions through leaks at The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Then I told myself that it was still the weekend and I needed a martini. That was another lesson the presidency was teaching me: Sometimes it didn’t matter how good your process was. Sometimes you were just screwed, and the best you could do was have a stiff drink—and light up a cigarette.
It’s often said that a president gets too much credit when the economy is doing well, and too much blame when it slumps.
You have to break eggs to make an omelette.
The absence of catastrophe, the preservation of normalcy, wouldn’t attract attention. Most of the people impacted wouldn’t even know how our policies had touched their lives. But every so often, while reading in the Treaty Room late at night, I’d come across a letter in my purple folder that began with something like this:
Dear President Obama,
I’m sure you’ll never read this, but I thought you might want to know that a program you started has been a real lifesaver…
I’d set down the letter after reading it and pull out a notecard to write the person a brief response. I imagined them getting the official envelope from the White House and opening it up with a look of puzzlement, then a smile. They’d show it to their family, maybe even take it to work. Eventually the letter would fall into a drawer somewhere, forgotten under the accumulation of the new joys and pains that make up a life. That was okay. I couldn’t expect people to understand how much their voices actually meant to me—how they had sustained my spirit and beat back whispering doubts on those late, solitary nights.
Barack is able to level the ground for his staff members to speak up to him, he listens. He isn’t sitting behind the resolute desk, like a king on his throne. He’s out there on the sofa with everybody. He visits service members in a hospital to learn the true cost of the war. He isn’t afraid to accept that sometimes America blundered in its foreign policy too.
At the start of each day of my presidency, I would find a leather binder waiting for me at the breakfast table. Michelle called it “The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book,” though officially it was known as the President’s Daily Brief or PDB.
Having at least one contrarian in the room made us all think harder about the issues—and I noticed that everyone was a bit freer with their opinions when that contrarian wasn’t me.
The service members I met were adamant that they had no regrets about sacrificing so much for their country and were understandably offended by anyone who viewed them with even a modicum of pity.
A national security official from a previous administration opined that the practice, no matter how well-intentioned, was not something a commander in chief should do—that visits with the wounded inevitably clouded a president’s capacity to make clear-eyed, strategic decisions. I was tempted to call that man and explain that I was never more clear-eyed than on the flights back from Walter Reed and Bethesda. Clear about the true costs of war, and who bore those costs. Clear about war’s folly, the sorry tales we humans collectively store in our heads and pass on from generation to generation—abstractions that fan hate and justify cruelty and force even the righteous among us to participate in the carnage. Clear that by virtue of my office, I could not avoid responsibility for lives lost or shattered, even if I somehow justified my decisions by what I perceived to be some larger good.
I wondered how Lincoln had managed it, what prayers he said afterwards. He must have known it was a necessary penance. A penance I, too, had to pay.
At times, we bent global institutions or ignored them altogether; we meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results; our actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights we professed to embody.
He talks about Merkel, who was suspicious of his rhetoric. And Sarkozy. He describes his encounters with Erdogan and Medvedev. He praises Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic. He’s looking at democracies around the world. And how today’s autocrats are more sophisticated, they fight elections slowly undermining the institutions that make democracy possible. Vaclav tells Obama that being cursed with people’s high expectations is a trap.
Merkel was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she’d been initially sceptical of me precisely because of my oratorical skills. I took no offence, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy sign.
Decisions made in the corporate boardrooms of New York, London, or Paris often had more impact on their economies than the policy choices of their own governments.
Hearing all this, I remembered what the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said about politics during the Soviet era, that “the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of state.”
One Turkish PM Erdogan, Obama said, I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.
I told myself it was the nature of democracies—including America’s—to swing between periods of progressive change and conservative retrenchment.
Watching Vaclav Havel maintain his moral compass even after his side had won power and he’d assumed the presidency had helped convince me that it was possible to enter politics and come out with your soul intact.
“Today autocrats are more sophisticated. They stand for election while slowly undermining the institutions that make democracy possible. They champion free markets while engaging in the same corruption, cronyism, and exploitation as existed in the past.”
“You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations,” he said, shaking my hand. “Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. I fear it can be a trap.”
Barack has to order to kill young men whom he wanted to give a better life. He wants to give them a better life, but the economics of the machine he commands does not permit that. He thinks about his good fight, his audacity of hope. He cannot help but think that what he’s saying are just some high-minded ideals and what really moves us are our primal urges. He visits the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and jokes with the Majesty about his wives. And he goes to Egypt, wherein pyramids he sees how one day he too will turn to dust and will be forgotten. At last, he goes to Germany and with Markel and Elie visits the graveyard of those how lost lives in the holocaust.
They were dangerous, these young men, often deliberately and casually cruel. Still, in the aggregate, at least, I wanted somehow to save them—send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Your Majesty,” I said, “but how do you keep up with twelve wives?”
“Very badly,” he said, shaking his head wearily. “One of them is always jealous of the others. It’s more complicated than Middle East Politics.”
How useful is it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that world are bound to fall short? Was Václav Havel correct in suggesting that by raising expectations, I was doomed to disappoint them? Was it possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were always would be nothing more than a pretence, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us, so that no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course, an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?
“Check it out, boss,” Reggie said, pointing at the wall. There, carved in the smooth, porous stone, was the dark image of a man’s face. Not the profile typical of hieroglyphics but a straight-on headshot. A long, oval face. Prominent ears sticking straight out like handles. A cartoon of me, somehow forged in antiquity.
“Must be a relative,” Marvin said.
We all had a laugh then, and the two of them wandered off to join the camel riders. Our guide couldn’t tell me just who it was that the image depicted, or even whether it dated back to the time of the Pyramids. But I stood at the wall for an extra beat, trying to imagine the life behind that etching. Had he been a member of the royal court? A slave? A foreman? Maybe just a bored vandal, camped out at night centuries after the wall had been built, inspired by the stars and his own loneliness to sketch his own likeness. I tried to imagine the worries and strivings that might have consumed him and the nature of the world he’d occupied, likely full of its own struggles and palace intrigues, conquests and catastrophes, events that probably at the time felt no less pressing than those I’d face as soon as I got back to Washington. All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust.
Just as every speech I’d 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.
Angela Merkel and I toured a famous eighteenth-century church that had been destroyed by the air raids, only to be rebuilt fifty years later with a golden cross and orb crafted by a British silversmith whose father had been one of the bomber pilots. The silversmith’s work served as a reminder that even those on the right side of war must not turn away from their enemy’s suffering, or foreclose the possibility of reconciliation.
One was a set of stone slabs featuring the names of the victims, including Elie’s father. The other was a list of the countries they came from, etched on a steel plate that was kept heated to thirty-seven degrees Celsius: the temperature of the human body, meant to be a reminder—in a place premised on hate and intolerance—of the common humanity we share.
Elie described to me and Merkel the daily strategies he and other prisoners had used to survive: how the stronger or luckier ones would sneak food to the weak and the dying; how resistance meetings took place in latrines so foul that no guards ever entered them; how adults organised secret classes to teach children math, poetry, history—not just for learning’s sake, but so those children might maintain a belief that they would one day be free to pursue a normal life.
In this chapter, Obama talks about Healthcare—Obamacare. Swine Flu pandemic hits the nation and he listens to his experts. Obama has to hire a supreme court judge. And he again stands at a crossroad when a fifty-eight-year-old Black Harvard professor is taken down and handcuffed on his own property by the cops for being rude to them. Obama wanted to say a lot on these issues, but a president doesn’t always get to speak his mind. This episode is another dent in his hope of uniting the United States of America.
“This is the time, Mr. President,” he had said. “Don’t let it slip away.”
“Making sausage isn’t pretty, Mr. President,” he said. “And you’re asking for a really big piece of sausage.”
“You need to be involved, Mr. President,” one of Ford’s staffers advised, “but you need to let the experts run the process.”
This, I was coming to realise, was the nature of the presidency: Sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed.
The idea of giving nine unelected, tenured-for-life lawyers in black robes the power to strike down laws passed by a majority of people’s representatives doesn’t sound very democratic.
An initial sense of uncertainty and displacement that came with being just one of a handful of women of colour on campus; the need to sometimes put in extra work to compensate for the gaps in knowledge that more privileged kids took for granted; the comfort of finding community among other Black students and supportive professors; and realisation over time that she was as smart as any of her peers.
For just about every Black man in the country, and every woman who loved a Black man, and every parent of a Black boy, it was not a matter of paranoia or “playing the race card” or disrespecting law enforcement to conclude that whatever else had happened that day in Cambridge, this much was almost certainly true: A wealthy, famous, five-foot-six, 140-pound, fifty-eight-year-old white Harvard professor who walked with a cane because of a childhood leg injury would not have been handcuffed and taken down to the station merely for being rude to a cop who’d forced him to produce some form of identification while standing on his own damn property.
The basis of our nations’ social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people, and that who controlled legally sanctioned violence, how it was wielded and against whom, still mattered in the recesses of our tribal minds much more than we cared to admit.
Republicans just wouldn’t budge to cooperate with Obama even on their own terms. Teddy Kennedy dies, Teddy had instilled in Obama the dream of getting the healthcare legislation passed. He describes the scene of Teddy’s funeral. He couldn’t let Teddy down, and he couldn’t let those millions of people down who had believed in him. Even Democrats were not worried that by supporting this legislation, they might end up losing their next elections. Obama makes an attempt to convince them, and he says that those who had the most to lose were easiest to get onboard. Tom Perriello told him “There are things more important than getting re-elected.” He redefines politics. Now some may say, that he was selling a fairy tale. But then who said fairy tales aren’t true? They are true not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that the dragons can be defeated.
he’d hem and haw about this or that problem he had with the bill without ever telling us what exactly it would take to get him to yes.
“My father believed in redemption,: Teddy Jr. said. “And he never surrendered, never stopped trying to right wrongs, be they the results of his own failing or of ours.”
“I guess the question for you, Mr. President, is, Do you feel lucky?”
I looked at him and smiled. “Where are we, Phil?”
Phil hesitated, wondering if it was a trick question. “The Oval Office?”
“And what’s my name?”
I smiled. “Barack Hussein Obama. And I’m here with you in the Oval Office. Brother, I always feel lucky.”
The idea of letting them down—of leaving them to fend for themselves because their president hadn’t been sufficiently brave, skilled, or persuasive to cut through the political noise and get what he knew to be the right thing done—was something I couldn’t stomach.
They understood that in politics, the stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.
This is it, I’d say to them finally. The point of it all. To have that rare chance, reserved for very few, to bend history in a better direction.
In fact, it was often those with most to lose who needed the least convincing.
“There are things more important,” he told me, “than getting reelected.”
It’s not hard to find people who hate Congress, voters who are convince that the Capitol is filled with poseurs and cowards, that most of their elected officials are in the pocket of lobbyists and big donors and motivated by a hunger for power. When I hear such criticism, I usually nod and acknowledge that there are some who live up to these stereotypes. I admit that watching the daily scrum that takes place on the House or Senate floor can sap even the hardiest spirit. But I also tell people about Tom Perriello’s words to me before the healthcare vote. I describe what he and many others did so soon after they’d first been elected. How many of us are tested in that way, asked to risk careers we’ve long dreamed of in the service of some greater good?
Those people can be found in Washington. That, too, is politics.
Barack faces more challenges as he comes to realise that President was like a bomb-disposal expert — trying not to make sloppy mistakes. He argues with Bob Gates for not sending additional troupes to Afghanistan. He kept thinking about the soldier’s mother who said to him: “Don’t leave those boys who are still over there hanging.” He learns that he’s getting the noble prize, but he thinks he hasn’t done anything yet to deserve it. Maybe it’s a call for action.
Instead, I came to experience my responsibilities the way I imagine a bomb-disposal expert feels about clipping a wire or a tightrope walker feels as she steps off the platform, having learned to shed excess fear for the sake of focus—while trying not to get so relaxed that I made sloppy mistakes.
There was one task that I never allowed myself to get even remotely comfortable with. Every week or so, my assistant Katie Johnson set on my desk a folder containing condolence letters to the families of fallen service members for me to sign. I’d close the door to my office, open the folder, and pause over each letter, reading the name aloud like an incantation, trying to summon an image of the young man (female casualties were rare) and what his life had been like—where he’d grown up and gone to school, the birthday parties and summer swim that had made up his childhood, the sports teams he’d played on, the sweethearts he’d pined for. I’d think about his parents, and his wife and kids if he had them. I signed each letter slowly, careful not to smudge the heavy beige of the pen. If the signature didn’t look the way I wanted, I’d have the letter reprinted, knowing full well that nothing I did would ever be enough.
It was hard for Bob Gates (who was he) to see that what he dismissed as politics was a democracy as it was supposed to work—that our mission had to be defined not only by the need to defeat an enemy but by the need to make sure the country wasn’t bled dry in the process; that questions about spending hundreds of billions on missiles and forward operating bases rather than schools or healthcare for kids weren’t tangential to national security but central to it; that the sense of duty he felt so keenly toward the troops already deployed, his genuine, admirable desire that they be given every chance to succeed, might be matched by the passion and patriotism of those interested in limiting the number of young Americans placed in harm’s way.
On the flight back, with sunrise still a few hours away, the only words I could remember from the entire visit were those of one soldier’s mother: “Don’t leave those boys who are still over there hanging.” She looked exhausted, her face hollowed by grief. I promised I wouldn’t, not knowing whether that meant sending more soldiers to finish the mission for which her son had made the ultimate sacrifice, or winding down a muddled and lengthy conflict that would cut short the lives of other people’s children. It was left for me to decide.
As a trumpet played taps, its plaintive melody punctuated by muffled sobs in the audience, my eyes travelled the memorials to the fallen soldiers: a framed photograph, a pair of empty combat boots, a helmet set atop a rifle.
Michelle and I had just finished getting dressed when Marvin knocked on the door and told us to look out our forth-story window. Pulling back the shades, we saw that several thousand people had gathered in the early dusk, filling the narrow street below. Each person held aloft a single lit candle—the city’s traditional way to express its appreciation for that year’s peace prize winner. It was a magical sight, as if a pool of stars had descended from the sky; and as Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but thing about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else. I saw an expression of the spirit of millions of people around the world: the U.S. soldier manning a post in Kandahar, the mother in Iran teaching her daughter to read, the Russian pro-democracy activist mustering his courage for an upcoming demonstration—all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that whatever the risks and hardships, they had a role to play.
Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.
Obama learns that he has less freedom than an ordinary citizen even after being in the most powerful office in the world. He understood power, Russia was creating problems for the West. Under Putin, the new Russia looked with every passing day like the old. Abstract theories and rigid orthodoxy can curdle people into repression. And it wasn’t unique to Soviets. We all were equally capable of being orthodox.
mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interests with national security; subverting democratically elected governments and aligning ourselves with autocrats when we determined it was to our benefit.
With enough HEU, a smart high school physics student with access to the internet can produce a bomb.
I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt than I’d had as a senator—or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.
I was also part of a post-Vietnam generation that had learned to question its own government and saw how—from the rise of McCarthyism to support for South Africa’s apartheid regime—Cold War thinking had often led America to betray its ideals. This awareness didn’t stop me from believing we should contain the spread of Marxist totalitarianism. But it made me wary of the notion that good resided only on our side and bad on theirs, or that a people who’d produce Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were inherently different from us. Instead, the evils of the Soviet system struck me as a variation on a broader human tragedy: The way abstract theories and rigid orthodoxy can curdle into repression. How readily we justify moral compromise and relinquish our freedoms. How power can corrupt and fear can compound and language can be debased. None of that was unique to Soviets or Communists, I thought; it was true for all of us. The brave struggle of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain felt a piece with, rather than distinct form, the larger struggle for human dignity taking place elsewhere in the world—including America.
And yet, with each year that Putin remained in power, the new Russia looked more like the old. In the hands of the shrewd and the ruthless, chaos had proven a gift.
We fear what we don’t know. Obama tries to avoid the war. He talks about his visits to China and Japan. At Japan, he bows to the Emperor and the Empress, and the conservatives in his homeland lose their mind, he worries, when did the sizable chunk of his people became so insecure and frightened?
“Humans aren’t that different from animals, Bar,” she told me. “We fear what we don’t know. When we’re afraid of people and feel threatened, it’s easier to fight wars and do other stupid things. The United Nations is a way for countries to meet and learn about each other and not be so afraid.”
Human beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul.
“Turns out avoiding a war is harder than getting into one.”
Chinese government had faithfully followed Dang Xiaoping’s counsel to “hide your strength and bide your time.”
Their ability to remotely convert any mobile phone into a recording device was widely known.
There was too much money to me made. U.S. corporations and their shareholders liked the reduced labour costs and soaring profits that resulted from shifting production to China. U.S. farmers liked all the new Chinese customers buying their soybeans and pork. Wall Street firms liked the scorers of Chinese billionaires looking to invest their newfound wealth, as did the slew of lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists brought on to service the expanding U.S.-China commerce.
Instead of engaging in protectionism, America needed to take a page from the Chinese playbook. If we wanted to stay number one, we needed to work harder, save more money, and teach our kids more math, science, engineering—and Mandarin.
Their manners were at once formal and self-effacing, their voices soft as the patter of rain, and I found myself trying to imagine the emperor’s life.
Later, I learned that my simple bow to my elderly Japanese hosts had sent conservative commentators into a fit back home. When one obscure blogger called it “treasonous,” his words got picked up and amplified in the mainstream press. Hearing all this, I pictured the emperor entombed in his ceremonial duties and the empress, with her finely worn, greying beauty and smile brushed with melancholy, and I wondered when exactly such a sizable portion of the American Right had become so frightened and insecure that they’d completely lost their minds.
I didn’t seem threatened, as they were, by the idea that the rest of the world was catching up to us. (Obama was secure and confident and humour)
For China, Obama said, “having reached a certain measure of economic security, they would start wanting those things the GDP couldn’t measure.”
For hundreds of years, the wall had held. This prompted Reggie to ask me how the Ming dynasty finally ended.
“Internal strife,” I said. “Power struggles, corruption, peasants starving ‘cause the rich got greedy or just didn’t care…”
“So, the usual,” Reggie said.
I nodded. “The usual.”
RIGHT-WING IN INDIA is so insecure that even after the fact that they are in the complete majority and from last eight years the opposition party, Congress, has been deemed meaningless and irrelevant, they still keep singing the songs of Congress. It’s like how even after killing your greatest enemy, you still keep thinking of it. Maybe you are worried if s/he’s really dead. Maybe you are worried about them coming back. Maybe you are worried if you’ll be able to defeat them once again? So you go to the grave of your fallen enemy every day just to shovel a little more dirt on it, making sure there is enough weight to keep the dead in the casket. You piss on it, thumping your chest, to wait for another day. Right-wing is afraid, they are afraid of their own people, they are afraid of institutions. The way they wield power is by casting the narrative of how bad things would be if they will not be in power. The way they gain power is by casting the narrative of how bad things are right now. They look at the darker side, as opposed to looking at the brighter side. That’s why they are also called conservatives. Not that left is a great place to be.
People are afraid, that is the crux of it maybe. They are afraid that people who are different from them in their ways of life would run over them someday. Those who are in the majority think that those in the minority are growing. They are taking the jobs. They are committing crimes. And those in the minority think that those in the majority will wring them like you wrung a soggy cloth and then leave them hanging on a thin wire under the sun extracting the essence of who they were. They know too much history to believe otherwise. And perhaps no amount of rhetoric would make a White love a Black or would make a Hindu love a Muslim. I just wish they also knew the history of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and Germany. Some leaders are too wise for their own good, they exactly know how to strike the cords that make the voter push for them to the office.
He makes all nations accept that they have a role to play in saving the world from climate change. He threatens to go Public if the nations in the meeting room do not reach a conclusion and accept some responsibility. He wonders about his own CO2 footprint, but on the advice of his team decides not to speak about it.
In other words, if you wanted good government, then expertise mattered. You needed public institutions stocked with people whose job it was to pay attention to important stuff so the rest of us citizen didn’t have to.
“Has anyone ever considered,” I said, “the amount of carbon dioxide I’m releasing into the atmosphere as a result of these trips to Europe? I’m pretty sure that between the planes, the helicopters, and the motorcades, I’ve got the biggest carbon footprint of any single person on the whole goddamn planet.”
“Huh,” Marvin said. “That’s probably right.” He found the game we were looking for, turned up the sound, then added. “You might not want to mention that in your speech tomorrow.”
“Of course, I may be wrong,” I said. “Maybe you can convince everyone that we’re to blame. But that won’t stop the planet from getting warmer. And remember, I’ve got my own megaphone, and it’s pretty big. If I leave this room without an agreement, then my first stop is the hall downstairs where all the international press is waiting for news. And I’m going to tell them that I was prepared to commit to a big reduction in our greenhouse gases, and billions of dollars in new assistance, and that each of you decided it was better to do nothing. I’m going to say the same thing to all the poor countries that stood to benefit from that new money. And to all the people in your won countries that stand to suffer the most from climate change. And we’ll see who they believe.”
Most important, we’d succeeded in getting China and India to accept—no matter how grudgingly or tentatively—the notion that every country, and not just those in the West, had a responsibility to do its part to slow climate change.
Obama has now understood that politics also means telling stories, selling your program, rewarding supporters, punching back against opponents, and amplifying the facts. He acknowledges that he might have failed in telling a story to his people that they could believe in after becoming the president.
In other words, FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t. I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in; and whether, having ceded the political narrative to my critics, I was going to be able to wrest it back.
How prepared were citizens in Europe’s wealthier, more efficient nations to take on a neighbouring country’s obligations or to see their tax dollars redistributed to those outside their borders?
I never had to tell anyone in the White House to work extra mile. Their own fear of dropping the ball—of disappointing me, colleagues, constituencies that were counting on us—drove people far more than any exhortation I might deliver.
When asked once what sort of out-of-town conferences were okay for administration officials to attend, his response was short and to the point: “If it sounds fun, you can’t go.”
Ironically, one aspect of management that took me longer to learn than it should have was the need to pay closer attention to the experiences of women and people of colour on the staff.
But as I’d discovered about myself during the campaign, obstacles and struggles rarely shook me to the core. Instead, depression was more likely to creep up on me when I felt useless, without purpose—when I was wasting my time or squandering opportunities. Even during my worst days as president, I never felt that way. The job didn’t allow for boredom or existential paralysis, and when I sat down with my team to figure out the answer to a knotty problem, I usually came away energised rather than drained.
The work, I loved. Even when it didn’t love me back.
There were nights when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about the days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return. My insistence that everything would work out in the end, I was really just protecting myself—and contributing to her loneliness.
There is a blowout in Deepwater Horizon. Oil Spills all across the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the biggest man-made disaster. Obama works to seal the well, even though he’s cannot just put up his fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there with a wrench. At least four million barrels of oil go into the open waters.
In the meantime, I had no problem with increasing U.S. oil and gas production to reduce our reliance on imports from petrostates like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“Trying to seal a live oil well a mile under the surface…this is more like a space mission.”
“What does he think I’m supposed to do?” I growled at Rahm after hearing of Carville’s broadside. “Put on my fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”
The best estimates concluded that the Macondo well had released at least four million barrels of oil into open waters, with at least two-thirds of that amount having been captured, burned off, or otherwise dispersed. Where the rest of the oil ended up, what gruesome toll it took on wildlife, how much oil would eventually settle back onto ocean floor, and what long-term effect that might have on the entire Gulf ecosystem—it would be years before we’d have the full picture.
“I hate to say it,” a Republican senator told me when we came by the White House for another matter, “but the worse people feel right now, the better for us.”
“Last I checked, this is America,” I said, stuffing files in my briefcase before I headed up to the residence for dinner. “And in America, you can’t single out one religious group and tell them they can’t build a house of worship on their own property.” “I get it, Mr. President,” Rahm said. “But you need to know that if you say something, it’s going to be hung around the necks of our candidates in every swing district around the country.” “I’m sure you’re right,” I answered as I walked to the door. “But if we can’t speak out on something this basic, then I don’t know what the point is of us being here.” Rahm sighed. “At the rate we’re going,” he said, “we may not be.”
His chief of staff Rahm is stepping down, even Larry — National Economic Advisor is leaving. Being at the top can be lonely, Obama feels the chills. He’d be surrounded by even fewer people who’d known him before he was the president. Obama visits India, he praises Dr Singh. Both of them worry about the rise of nationalistic aspirations and the right-wing.
I realised that justifying the past mattered less than planning what to do next.
“What am I going to do without you around to explain why I’m wrong?” I asked, only half-joking. Larry smiled.
“Mr. President,” he said, “you were actually less wrong than most.”
More than once we’d asked ourselves why we’d chosen such stressful lives.
“After we’re finished, we should try something simpler,” I said to him one day. “We could move our families to Hawaii and open a smoothie stand on the beach.”
“Smoothies are too complicated,” Rahm said. “We’ll sell T-shirts. But just white T-shirts. In medium. In medium. That’s it—no other colors or patterns or sizes. We don’t want to have to make any decisions. If customers want something different, they can go someplace else.”
I’d be surrounded by even fewer people who’d known me before I was president, and by fewer colleagues who were also friends, who’d seen me tired, confused, angry, or defeated and yet had never stopped having my back. It was a lonely thought at a lonely time. Which probably explains why I was still playing cards with Marvin, Reggie, and Pete when I had a full day of meetings and appearances scheduled to start in less than seven hours.
“Everybody loses sometimes.”
Reggie flashed a hard look at Pete. “Show me someone who’s okay with losing,” he said, “and I’ll show you a loser.”
Along with Lincoln, King and Mandela, Gandhi had profoundly influenced my thinking.
VISIT MANI BHAWAN IN MUMBAI.
And in that moment, I had the strongest wish to sit beside him and talk. To ask him where he’d found the strength and imagination to do so much with so very little. To ask how he’d recovered from disappointment.
“In uncertain times, Mr. President,” the prime minister said, “the call of religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating. And it’s not so hard for politicians to exploit that, in India or anywhere else.”
As for Rahul, he seemed smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s. He offered up his thoughts on the future of progressive politics, occasionally pausing to probe me on the details of my 2008 campaign. But there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.
Somehow, I was doubtful. It wasn’t Singh’s fault. He had done his part following the playbook of liberal democracies across the post-Cold War world: upholding the constitutional order; attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP; and expanding the social safety net. Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies like India and the United States. Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.
Except now I found myself asking, whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and desire to beat back our own uncertainty and morality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to surface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fear and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.
You never looked as smart as the ex-president did on the sidelines.
Obama deals with the Arab Spring. He mentions in detail about Libya. He ponders on leadership. How leaders carry with then their insecurities, their childhood traumas, or memories of unexpected kindness. How much is it the personality that manifest, and how much is it just the zeitgeist? Are they merely the conduits for the currents of the time or are they instruments of their own will?
It was no longer the plucky David surrounded by hostile Goliaths; thanks to tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the Israeli armed forces were now matchless in the region.
U.S. officials also had to explain why it wasn’t hypocritical for us to press countries like China or Iran on their human rights records while showing little concern for the rights of Palestinians.
Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.
Even as conditioned varied from country to country, most of these leaders maintained their grip through an old formula: restricted political participation and expression, pervasive intimidation and surveillance at the hands of police or internal security services, dysfunctional judicial systems and insufficient due process protections, rigged (or nonexistent) elections, an entrenched military, heavy press censorship, and rampant corruption.
“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha
“But there are moments in history where just because things have been the same way in the past doesn’t mean they will be the same way in the future.
He knows that no matter what he might have told Michelle about running for president — that him being the president will change the way children and young people everywhere saw themselves and their world, he was nowhere close. Presidency he says is contemplating knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe. He talks about the political style of Trump, his lack of inhibition and instinctive understanding of what moves conservative bases.
I wondered if that was true. It’s what I had told myself at the start of my political journey, part of my justification to Michelle for running for president—that the election and leadership of a Black president stood to change the way children and young people everywhere saw themselves and their world. And yet I knew that whatever impact my fleeting presence might have had on those children of the favelas and however much it might cause some to stand straighter and dream bigger, it couldn’t compensate for the grinding poverty they encountered every day: the bad schools, polluted air, poisoned water, and sheer disorder that many of them had to wade through just to survive. By my own estimation, my impact on the lives of poor children and their families so far had been negligible—even in my own country. My time had been absorbed by just trying to keep the circumstances of the poor, both at home and abroad, from worsening: making sure a global recession didn’t drastically drive up their ranks or eliminate whatever slippery foothold they might have in the labour market; trying to head off a change in climate that might lead to a deadly flood or storm; or, in the case of Libya, trying to prevent a madman’s army from gunning down in the streets. That wasn’t nothing I thought—as long as I didn’t start fooling myself into thinking it was anywhere close to enough.
“We have him,” he said. “It seems he was picked up by some friendly Libyans, and he’s going to be fine.”
I wanted to kiss Tom at that moment, but I kissed Michelle instead.
When someone asks me to describe what it feels like to be the president of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe—in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night. It wasn’t simply that each decision I made was essentially a high-stakes wager; it was the fact that unlike in poker, where a player expects and can afford to lose a few big hands even on the way to a winning night, a single mishap could cost a life, and overwhelm—both in the political press and in my own heart—whatever broader objective I might have achieved.
They too, understood that it didn’t whether what they said was true. They didn’t have to actually believe that I was bankrupting the country or that Obamacare promoted euthanasia. In fact, the only difference between Trump’s style of politics and theirs (Boehner or McConnell) was Trump’s lack of inhibition. He understood instinctively what moved the conservative base most, and he offered it up in an unadulterated form. While I doubted that he was willing to relinquish his business holdings or subject himself to the necessary vetting in order to run for president, I knew that the passion he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimising, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.
He reminds us that we are better than this. McRaven confirms to him that they have shot down Bin Laden. Years of hard work, intelligence, strategy, and planning bore fruit as everyone in the situation room feel the burst of exhilarating energy on putting down a terrorist who was the mind behind 9/11. Obama thinks to himself, was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to get bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent daycare. He ends the book with this question. Is unity on possible with the they-versus-us divide?
“But”, I said, “we’re not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We’re not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We’re not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” I looked out at the assembled reporters. “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them—not on this.”
“We’re better than this,” I said. “Remember that.”
McRaven explained that he was looking at the body as we spoke, and that in his judgement it was definitely bin Laden; the CIA’s facial recognition software would soon indicate the same. To further confirm, McRaven had a six-foot-two member of his team lie next to the body to compare his height to bin Laden’s purported six-foot-four frame.
“Seriously, Bill?” I teased. “All that planning and you couldn’t bring a tape measure?”
With these thoughts came another: Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent daycare. I knew that even my own staff would dismiss these notions as utopian. And the fact that this was the case, the fact that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies, I took as a measure of how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be—and how much work I had left to do.