Well, it’s happened two months in a row. Seven hundred pages of non-fiction. What’s become of me?
The first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, takes us very quickly through his early life (covered in prior works, but I’d not read them, so I was grateful for the background) and his Senatorial term. Then he turns to his decision to run for President, the primary campaign that followed, and his first three or four years in the White House. A whole team assisted in the research, writing and revisions, but the voice is Obama’s throughout and it rings true. He mostly proves capable of acknowledging his own missteps, and always acknowledges the good work of the team around him, both in the White House and the Pentagon. He expertly describes the workings of the House and Senate, and the politics that inform the actions of all the principals. This is history, but it’s history we all lived through not so long ago, and the level of detail is just right, bringing it all back without bogging down the narrative.
His account of the election—from a fulsome treatment of the Iowa caucuses, to the unveiling of a new President who looked like no other in Grant Park in Chicago—strikes me as even-handed and true. His treatment of the first nine months of his presidency—from the fall of Lehman Brothers even before the inauguration, to the repayment of most of the $67 billion lent to the country’s nine largest banks—is detailed but succinct. Key decisions here are described both as they were made and in retrospect, usefully comparing the two, and the detail provided is exceptional but not overdone. A real cliff-hanger it was, the first of many.
Through each chapter in the saga, he takes time to recognize the criticisms some liberals level—even today—that he missed opportunities to bring about more radical change in our economy and society. With regard to the banking crisis, for example, he acknowledges that “many thoughtful critics [regard] the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy as precisely the problem—a missed opportunity if not a flat-out betrayal. According to this view, the financial crisis offered me a once-in-a-generation chance to reset the standards for normalcy, remaking not just the financial system but the American economy overall. If I had only broken up the big banks and sent white collar culprits to jail . . . .” Obama takes time to respond, in measured tones making salient points, to argue his case that radical changes suggested by liberal critics “almost certainly would have made matters worse. Not worse for the wealthy and powerful [but] for the very folks I’d be purporting to save.”
He goes on to lighten the narrative here and there as needed. He tells of being taught on the morning of his inauguration how to deliver a proper salute, before diving back into the serious business of finding a way out of Iraq and dealing with Afghanistan. He tells of dealing with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, knowing the “real power in Russia” was still Vladimir Putin, “the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate that had its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of the country’s economy.” And of the moment in law school when he realized his future would have little to do with law practice, and everything to do with politics and public service. He traces the story of the Affordable Care Act coming into being, with plot turns that would make a scriptwriter proud, all of it true. And he doesn’t leave that terrain without making clear that, while the ACA meant little to large swaths of the American public, it meant everything for the many poorer families among us.
The book closes with a chapter on getting Bin Laden. It’s certainly the most dramatic, owing in part to its exquisite detail, and it was the perfect choice for ending this first volume.
I did have one recurring qualm as I read. Hillary Clinton is almost uniformly referred to as just “Hillary,” even when she hasn’t been mentioned in fifty pages or more (I half expected her citation references in the Index to be listed under H). I found this off-putting, perhaps even demeaning, and can’t recall anyone else being repeatedly referenced in this way. Had I been on the vast team of editors and other contributors working on this project, I’d have said something.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .