The Tattered Idealism of Barack Obama

If Donald Trump eroded the faith of Americans, his predecessor's memoir shows how it might be restored.

Barack Obama
Pete Souza / The White House


f you are north of a certain age, you might remember where you were when Barack Obama gave his star-is-born keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I was in a broadcast booth in the mezzanine level up above, with Mark Shields and Jim Lehrer, watching tears run down Lehrer’s face. He turned to me when it was over and all I could say was, “This is why we go into this business.”

Watched again at the end of the bitter and scabrous Trump years, the speech is even more remarkable. Obama tapped into our dreaming, hoping, aspiring nature. He reminded us of our common ideals and our common responsibilities to one another. He painted hope as a tough-minded, audacious act: “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

Obama doubled down on that idealism during his 2008 presidential campaign. That hope-and-change presidential campaign was a thrilling secular revival, with its soaring moments and fervent recitations: Yes, we can! Fired up, ready to go! Obama set the modern American benchmark for lofty rhetoric, for inspiring a passionate sense of optimism, for repeatedly rejecting the cynical politics of the past, symbolized first by Hillary Clinton and then by John McCain. Crowds always gather for presidential campaigns, but not with stars in their eyes the way they did for Obama in 2008.

At times, that campaign transcended politics and promised some sort of more fundamental rebirth. “If we won,” Obama writes in his new memoir, “it would mean that I wasn’t alone in believing the world didn’t have to be a cold unforgiving place, where the strong preyed upon the weak and inevitably fell back into clans and tribes.”

To put it a little grandly, that campaign didn’t just promise a new style of politics—it was predicated on a different view of human nature. It was an assertion that you could win a national election not by appealing to the fears, hatreds, and negative emotions, which is what most political consultants were doing, but by appealing to voters’ ideals, aspirations, and positive motivations. It was an assertion that human beings are self-transcending creatures. For all our sins, selfishness, and stupidity, we’re able to gaze upward toward justice, mercy, and goodness. We’re strongly motivated in day-to-day life to pursue the good, holy, and beautiful—to be better and to make the world better. For all our imperfections, that campaign insisted, human beings are fundamentally good.

But was this view of human nature actually true? Would Obama really be able to govern in this high-minded way? After all, down the centuries a lot of people, especially in politics, have taken a darker view of human beings. Thomas Hobbes thought that people are basically selfish. Niccolò Machiavelli believed that people in general are “ungrateful, fickle, hypocrites and dissemblers, avoiders of dangers, greedy for gain.” In All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren has one of his political operators say, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”

If you take this realist view, you believe that you have to deal with people as they are—self-interested—not as you’d like them to be. According to this position, you sometimes have to rule by fear, not just inspiration, because the world is a dangerous and often untrustworthy place. Beat or be beaten. Screw or get screwed. Don’t get swept up in your own illusions of innocence. If you assume that others are good, they’ll just treat you as a sap.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden

Most of us live in the tension between these two different views of human nature. But no American figure has wrestled with the contest between idealism and realism as publicly as Barack Obama. His new memoir, A Promised Land, can be read as a long dialogue between these opposing visions of what human beings essentially are.

Idealism is Obama’s original condition. He writes that as a college student he chafed at any text that sought to deny American exceptionalism, the belief that there is something uniquely good about the United States. He portrays his college self as earnest, idealistic, and painfully serious. The lofty ideals he cultivated in his own head wouldn’t survive scrutiny when he shared them with his more cynical friends. “I feel great affection for the young man I was,” he writes, “aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be a part of something grand and idealistic, which evidence seemed to indicate did not exist.”

Needless to say, the realities of politics didn’t always match his soaring visions. He was repeatedly warned about this. When he first told Michelle of his plan to enter politics she responded, “I wish I had your optimism. Sometimes I do. But people can be so selfish or just plain ignorant. I think a lot of people don’t want to be bothered. And I think politics seems like it’s full of people willing to do anything for power, who just think about themselves.”

When he was in the Illinois state legislature, a well-meaning lobbyist came up to him and told him to stop expecting people to be driven by noble ideals. “The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling cars,” the lobbyist said. “You start believing it’s more than that, it’ll drive you crazy.”

For the first many years of his career, he kept finding evidence that people weren’t buying the idealism he was selling. He got crushed in a race for Congress in Chicago. In one of the memoir’s most memorable scenes, Obama describes his effort to get into the 2000 Democratic National Convention, just four years before he was the next convention’s star. He couldn’t rent a car because his credit card was over the limit. The credentials his friend promised him didn’t include floor access, so he just wandered around the perimeter. He tried to get into one of the parties but was rejected. He flew home as Al Gore was accepting the nomination. “I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained,” he writes. “I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn.” Worse, he realized, he had run for Congress not because of some “selfless dream of changing the world,” but to “satisfy my own ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.”

The dragon of selfishness had eclipsed the better angels of his nature. If this could happen to the man who would become Mr. Hope and Change, who among us is immune?

When he got to the White House, events conspired to give credence to the darker view of human nature. An epidemic of greed and consumerism had just brought about a financial crisis.

Republicans decided it was in their interest to obstruct every proposal he floated. The leaders of China, Iran, and Russia practiced a ruthless realpolitik. Putin reminded Obama of a hyped-up version of a Chicago ward boss, to whom, he writes, “life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe but in the end, you couldn’t trust them. You looked out for yourself first and then for your own.”

I interviewed Obama many times during those White House years, sometimes alone, often in groups of a dozen or so columnists. In the first years, even as history threw crisis after crisis at him, he retained his hopeful demeanor. But as the years went by, notes of bitterness and annoyance crept into his voice. He came to speak more proudly of his nuts-and-bolts 2012 reelection campaign than he did of the lofty 2008 one. He sometimes projected the disappointment that, unfortunately, the rest of humanity was not up to his level. I learned to never ask him about any past decision, because it would send him off on a defensive 20-minute peroration on why some debatable decision had been absolutely correct. By the end of his presidency, it was easy to get the impression that idealism had been worn down by bitter experience—that the idealistic Obama, who early in his presidency gave a speech in Cairo about democracy and human rights in the Middle East, had given way to the later Obama, who seemed to find the whole Middle East a giant clusterfuck to be avoided as much as possible.

It was as though God had decided to conduct a philosophical experiment—and the Machiavellian view had won.

Of course, Obama was never as innocent and high-minded as those hope posters would have had you believe. The man had read his Reinhold Niebuhr; he knew about the Christian theology that places sinfulness at the heart of mankind. He’d grown up Black in America, with all the harsh realities that go with that. Recently, I re-watched his 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech in Iowa, the one that turbo-charged his campaign and made him the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. I’d remembered it as a soaring, symphonic burst of youthful idealism. But when I went back and watched it again, it seemed just as much a ruthless dismantling of Hillary Clinton for being cynical, calculating, entitled, and probably corrupt. In the book, Obama portrays himself as somewhat detached from the utopian frenzy he was generating in 2008. While everybody else was swept up in dreams of what might be, he was just making a ton of donor calls and giving the same speech multiple times a day.

Still, the main headline of his memoir is that Machiavelli did not win; the more hopeful view of human nature won. Despite all the scars and disappointments, Obama’s faith in the core goodness of human nature is still there.

This is demonstrated most of all by the tone of the book. It is not prickly and defensive. It is not about settling scores. It is vulnerable and introspective. It is written in a way that assumes that readers will be generous with him, will see his vulnerabilities and not seize them as opportunities to savage him. This is not how people write when they think that society in general is dog-eat-dog.

The book radiates an emotional warmth that Obama used to share only with his inner circle. Obama writes that he hasn’t changed much in his adult life, but the testimony of this book is that he has gone from a man who used to put great faith in the power of reason to a man who has come to have faith in the wisdom of the emotions. As his campaigns went on, he writes, his stump speeches were less argument, more about telling the stories of other Americans; less logic, more empathy; and less about proving a point than about revealing shared attachments. This is not an evolution you make if you view the world with distrust, and it allows A Promised Land to be far more personal and revealing than most political memoirs.

Barack Obama

They say it’s lonely at the top, but this seems to have not been the case for Obama. His administration was scant in scandal and betrayal, rich in camaraderie. For example, Reggie Love, Obama’s body man, glides through the book like he and the president are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, having a glorious adventure. When Obama gets depressed on the campaign trail, Love pipes up, “If it’s any consolation, I’m having the time of my life.” After President Obama storms into a room filled with Chinese and Russian officials to seal a climate accord, Love observes, “I gotta say, boss, that was some real gangster shit back there.”

Obama does endure repeated disillusionment, but then recovers and rises above it. He may vent that the American people don’t really care about the environment enough to seriously inconvenience themselves, but when he’s done venting, he refuses to behave as if he thought people were all bad. “Part of what you’re sensing here are times when I make decisions to be gracious, when I assume the best in people, not because I’m naive but because this is how I choose to operate in the world,” Obama recently told Jeffrey Goldberg. Sometimes your way of being is more important than your way of thinking. It’s possible to observe selfishness in others yet refuse to play by their rules. It’s possible to say to yourself, This is a potentially corrupting situation, but I choose to resist that corruption.

We all have to decide where to situate ourselves in the world, and again and again Obama situates himself with the idealists. On foreign trips, he makes it a point to have meetings with college students. He doesn’t really think Russian human-rights activists have many prospects in the Putin era, yet he still holds a big public meeting with them. Throughout his presidency he was slow to intervene abroad, even when innocent lives were at stake, but he still stood with his foreign-policy adviser, Samantha Power. “She evoked my own youthful idealism, the part of me still untouched by cynicism, cold calculation, or caution dressed up as wisdom.”

Perhaps there is something distinctly African American about this posture. African Americans are among the most mistreated people in America, but they are also, as survey after survey shows, the most optimistic people in America. Poor Black people are even more optimistic than wealthy Black people. One sees an almost willful decision to simply refuse to be ground down by circumstances, an insistence on seeing a brighter day ahead and observing the present from the vantage point of a better future.

“The spirit of the blues,” the great writer Albert Murray once observed, “moves in the opposite direction from ashes and sackcloth, self-pity, self-hatred, and suicide. As a matter of fact the dirtiest, meanest, and most low-down blues are not only not depressing, they function like an instantaneous aphrodisiac!” You can’t always choose your life, Murray argued, but you can choose your style. The blues idiom starts not by “obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature,” but by making “an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response.” When you sing the blues you become the “humanizer of the chaos.”

Once upon a time, scientists emphasized our “selfish genes,” arguing that life was a bloody battle for survival, red in tooth and claw. But recently the evidence has swung wildly the other way. The neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman wrote a book, Social, that describes how human beings are wired to connect and cooperate. The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard wrote a book, Altruism, showing that when hard times come, sharing is more common than pillaging, and cooperation is more common than indifference. And The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest, by the Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, is a summary of the many research studies that show that most people are basically good, not bad. In any given experiment, Benkler observes, 30 percent of the participants behave selfishly, but roughly half of the participants behave cooperatively, in predictable and systematic ways. Many people behave altruistically even when others are mean, and even when it comes at personal cost. “In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions,” Benkler concludes, “have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.”

Donald Trump has given us a display of what it’s like to have a leader with a rock-bottom view of human nature, who assumes that everyone is as selfish as he is. Trump doesn’t merely lack ideals—he is incapable of seeing what an ideal is. He has shown us that suspicion is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you assume that others are untrustworthy, then you will behave in ways that make you yourself repellent. Trump has shown us that if you don’t have faith in people, then you ultimately don’t have faith in democracy.

Barack Obama

The Trump era has damaged our faith in ourselves and each other. These years have caused many of us to wonder, as Obama does in his memoir, if “greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance” aren’t, at the end of the day, “too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.” We’ve gone from being a country too complacent about our innocence to a country too convinced of our guilt. We’ve become a country of conspiracy theorists, who grant the legitimacy of nothing and suspect hidden malevolent forces everywhere.

So to have Barack Obama reemerge bearing a message of tattered idealism is a welcome tonic. He built his political career on an understanding of human nature broad enough to account for both the highest and noblest things people are capable of and the lowest and most cruel. Yes, he suggests, you have to accept that motives are almost always mixed. No, we are never as virtuous in other people’s eyes as we are in our own. And leaders cannot wield power without getting their hands dirty; they take on the sins of their situation. But ultimately Obama’s experience suggests that progress is real, and things tend toward the good. Most people see their lives as a struggle toward one ideal or another, and that’s what gives life meaning and explains its sweetness. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” Niebuhr wrote, “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Joe Biden doesn’t play a big role in Obama’s book. He’s occasionally sent off to lobby Congress, and he’s present when Obama is interacting with the generals, but we don’t see him as a vibrant presence. But when I think of Biden from the vantage point of Obama’s book, with all its wrestling about good and evil, I think of Genesis 1:27: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” That verse teaches the lesson that at the core of every person there is some infinite dignity, some awesomely beautiful good. Biden seems to approach that good more simply and straightforwardly than Obama. And maybe that pure faith in other people is not naive but what the country needs in order to call forth the goodness that is right now latent.