Obama’s Memoir Is an Exercise in Ironic Realism

The former president’s detachment allowed him to see the emerging political landscape before others did—and kept the presidency from extinguishing his literary light.

Barack Obama
Pete Souza / The White House

Autobiographies of famous people are almost always disappointing. The demands of public life degrade literary prose: the euphemisms, evasions, forced optimism, and name-checking; the pressure to please different constituencies; the need to project one’s personality onto a huge stage; the relentless schedule, the lack of time alone. Living with one eye on popular opinion and the other on history kills the inwardness without which writing turns into making statements. The great can’t afford to be honest. Too much of anyone’s life is failure and disappointment; too much of greatness has the smell of monomania. No—they have to learn from every setback, move on to the next “challenge,” find inspiration in ordinary people, and if they had it to do all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing. The masks they wear become their faces. Even the words they write themselves sound ghostwritten.

If Abraham Lincoln had outlived his presidency, he might have left us a wise and brooding masterpiece. John F. Kennedy’s would have been rich with irony and a sense of history. But the autobiographies of recent presidents are all pretty forgettable. The one presidential memoir that became a classic—Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant—is overpraised by people who haven’t read it. Grant’s talent as a writer consists of the same quality that made him a great general: his dogged attention to the task at hand. What he lacked in self-reflection, he made up for in subject matter.

The first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs puts to the test whether a good writer can survive being president. Obama entered politics as a writer, not the other way around. Dreams From My Father, published in 1995, when he was 33, tells of his search for identity and meaning as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Black man from Kenya. By almost any standard, it’s an exceptional first book, restless and subtle and driven by a deepening self-knowledge. The story ends shortly before Obama enters the hard world of Chicago politics in the mid-’90s—not an obvious destination for the book’s sensitive protagonist. Years later, during his 2004 Senate race, Obama told a magazine journalist following him around Illinois that he’d like to trade places for a day and be the one observing and taking notes. This tension between the writer and politician, the dreamer and activist, detachment and involvement—“wanting to be in politics but not of it”—plays out in one form or another all through Obama’s career, and in his new memoir.

A Promised Land is indisputably a book by the author of Dreams From My Father. There’s the same capacity for self-awareness and self-criticism, the talent for description and narrative pacing, the empathy and wry asides. The best passages—such as those describing Obama’s political rise from Chicago to the Iowa caucus and the Democratic nomination in 2008—have the fresh energy of experience the author has longed to revisit. The bigger the politician gets, the harder the writer has to struggle to stay in command of the story. In the account of Obama’s presidency, which ends with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the narrative voice disappears for long stretches of policy debates, historical contexts, and foreign trips. “I’m painfully aware that a more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater brevity,” Obama admits in the preface. But somehow, through a decade and a half of intense exposure, speeches, interviews, meetings, briefings, and galas, the ex-president has preserved his inner life, and with it his literary light. That tension between the public figure and the private man is one of the new book’s main themes.

It’s evident in the way Obama experiences the sudden and persistent strangeness of the office—how “my first name all but disappeared,” how everyone stood whenever he entered a room, how unnatural his imprisonment in the White House and even on trips outside the gates felt. He has a recurring dream of walking along a busy street and suddenly realizing, with a rush of joy, that no one recognizes him and his security detail is gone. Presidents talk about the loneliness of the job. This book, crowded with characters and incidents, makes you feel it—as when Obama has to leave a Situation Room meeting on whether to take military action in Libya, walks over to the residence, sits through a formal dinner, making small talk with a wounded veteran and all the while thinking through a war plan, then returns to the West Wing to announce it.

I doubt the strains of a White House marriage have ever been portrayed with such candor from the inside. Obama often stays up late working in the Treaty Room while Michelle retires to her study, and he finally goes to bed after she’s asleep: “There were nights when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about those 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.” He wonders if his wife’s tension is more honest than his calm, a form of self-protection that only adds to her loneliness.

Obama has a habit, almost a reflex, of stepping back to imagine the lives of others when another president would have tried not to dwell on them: Hillary Clinton, venting frustration on the campaign trail in 2008; the wife of a grievously wounded soldier; the Obama-looking man carved on the wall of an Egyptian pyramid. He contemplates, too, the teenage Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean in early 2009 and were shot dead on his orders: “Warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men … 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.”

There is a limit to Obama’s detachment, to the questions he’s willing to ask himself. For example, he acknowledges the criticism that his handling of the financial crisis gave the American people the impression that his administration was more solicitous of greedy bankers than of ordinary citizens. He debates whether he should have nationalized the banks, pushed for a larger stimulus package, done more for homeowners facing foreclosure; then he faces facts with the not-very-consoling thoughts that “what looked like the simplest solution wasn’t so simple” and “I felt assured that we’d run a good process.” Obama’s characteristic mode is not soaring inspiration but ironic realism, a readiness to accept the tragic limitations of human endeavor and make the best of them. During his drama-filled first year in office, that mode seemed from the outside like a form of technocracy, far from his 2008 campaign and “Yes we can.”

A similar mode drove Obama’s two first-term decisions involving war and peace—the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and the air strikes in Libya in 2011. In his account of each case, it’s hard not to conclude that he wanted neither in nor out, settling on a split-the-difference policy in which he himself didn’t have much confidence: sending tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan while immediately planning their withdrawal; destroying Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses, then leaving the problem of Libya to the Europeans.

These early dilemmas in Obama’s presidency echo his youthful conflict between, in Michelle Obama’s words, “the world as it is, and the world as it should be.” His taking pride in “good process” and settling on politically thankless policies that dissatisfied even his ardent supporters while winning over none of his opponents could be seen as an idealist’s learning to govern in the world as it is, acquiring wisdom the hard way. Obama wanted to restore the economy, not transform it. “I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision,” he writes. But perhaps those early months actually reflected an inexperienced young politician confronted with unprecedented difficulties—not so much the world as it was, but the president as he was.

Obama comes close to admitting this in an admirably self-critical passage about his domestic policies. In the year and a half during which he prevented a depression and passed universal health care and Wall Street reform, he also lost the American public. The inspiring connection he’d formed with voters in 2008 abandoned him once he got to the White House. They had little idea what he was doing or how it fit into a larger vision. His first achievement, the Recovery Act, was practically designed so that no one would notice its effects. His advisers urged him to keep it small enough to attract Republican votes that never came. Obama decided that good policy required incremental tax cuts rather than lump sums that recipients might save, instead of spend. He didn’t advertise his infrastructure projects with a recognizable symbol like the New Deal’s blue eagle. He was too principled for such politics.

In those years, I was reporting in places that had been hit hard by unemployment and foreclosures—Southside Virginia, Tampa Bay, Youngstown. The desperation was palpable, and Obama’s Washington seemed hopelessly remote. A conservative Republican banker in Danville, Virginia, wondered why the administration didn’t directly hire young people for federal projects like renovating the courthouse downtown. Instead, Obama listened to cautious advisers such as his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, whose main concern was the health of the banks and the stability of the markets, and who had a ready explanation for why every more radical measure would be unwise. So the Republicans were able to convince the public that the Recovery Act was big-government waste that saved no one’s job and created no new ones. Franklin D. Roosevelt “would never have made such mistakes,” Obama writes. “I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in.”

Many Americans who had welcomed Obama concluded that the game was rigged for the rich and well connected. While he sat through agonizing meetings in his first 100 days, outside the White House the Tea Party rose up like a vicious storm. When the Democratic Party suffered a massive defeat in the 2010 midterm elections, resulting in Republican obstruction for the rest of his presidency and a decade of gerrymandered statehouses, I was quick to fault Obama and his technocrats for failing to grasp the moment.

Ten years later, I’m more forgiving. Obama’s self-criticism in A Promised Land remains accurate, but the historical context looks different today. The crisis in those years was not just economic, though a lopsided and cruel economy fed it. Reading the story Obama tells, you can see clearly how his candidacy and his presidency provoked the long chain of reaction from Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and birtherism to the election of Donald Trump and the descent of today’s Republican Party into racism and unreason. The prosecution of a few Wall Street bankers by the Obama Justice Department would not have calmed the ferocity of this new force in American politics. With many Americans, including some who voted for him, President Obama never had a chance. “I had run to rebuild the American people’s trust—not just in the government but in one another,” he writes. “If we trusted one another, democracy worked … But how could we even begin?”

If our condition is a kind of democratic collapse—an erosion of institutions, an implosion of civic trust, an explosion of lies—then there isn’t a politician who has stood against it more wholeheartedly and eloquently than Obama. With every year, the faults of his presidency fade and his stature rises. When he was young and tempted by cynicism, he clung to “the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.” He still clings to it today. He’ll be the last of us to let it go.