Obama’s new book looks good

December 9, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I’m not generally a fan of political books, but I may have to break down and get Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land.

I don’t know if the New Yorker article below is free (I subscribe), but it was reading that excerpt from Obama’s book that made me think about getting the whole thing (click on first screenshot to go to Amazon page). It’s only volume 1 and is a daunting 768 pages, but the reviews have been uniformly favorable. Further, it’s #1 among all books on Amazon, and a very cheap $23.96 in hardback on the site:

Below: the excerpt. What I liked about it was that it dealt not only with policy (the “toughest fight” was about Obamacare), but also the day-to-day doings and feelings of a President—what it is like to be President. And it’s extraordinarily well written for a man who is not a professional writer but a politician. He’s a natural.

Here’s the ending of the New Woker piece, which gives you an idea of the mix of political and personal, conveyed in a folksy style that isn’t cloying (you can hear Obama’s voice in these words). It’s this mix that made the excerpt—and, according to the reviewers, the book—so appealing:

It wasn’t just that criticism from friends always stung the most. The carping carried immediate political consequences for Democrats. It confused our base (which, generally speaking, had no idea what the hell a public option was) and divided our caucus. It also ignored the fact that all the great social-welfare advances in American history, including Social Security and Medicare, had started off incomplete and had been built upon gradually, over time. By preëmptively spinning what could be a monumental, if imperfect, victory into a bitter defeat, the criticism contributed to a potential long-term demoralization of Democratic voters—otherwise known as the “What’s the point of voting if nothing ever changes?” syndrome—making it even harder for us to win elections and move progressive legislation forward in the future.

There was a reason, I told my adviser Valerie Jarrett, that Republicans tended to do the opposite—that Ronald Reagan could preside over huge increases in the federal budget, the federal deficit, and the federal workforce and still be lionized by the G.O.P. faithful as the guy who successfully shrank the federal government. They understood that, in politics, the stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.

We made none of these arguments publicly, though for the rest of my Presidency the phrase “public option” became a useful shorthand inside the White House anytime Democratic interest groups complained about us failing to defy political gravity and securing less than a hundred per cent of whatever they were asking for. Instead, we did our best to calm folks down, reminding disgruntled supporters that we would have plenty of time to fine-tune the legislation when we merged the House and Senate bills. Harry kept doing Harry stuff, including keeping the Senate in session weeks past the scheduled adjournment for the holidays.

As he’d predicted, Olympia Snowe braved a blizzard to stop by the Oval and tell us in person that she’d be voting no. But it didn’t matter. On Christmas Eve, after twenty-four days of debate, with Washington blanketed in snow and the streets all but empty, the Senate passed its health-care bill, titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the A.C.A.—with exactly sixty votes. It was the first Christmas Eve vote in the Senate since 1895.

A few hours later, I settled back in my seat on Air Force One, listening to Michelle and the girls discuss how well Bo was adjusting to his first plane ride as we headed to Hawaii for the holiday break. I felt myself starting to relax just a little. We were going to make it, I thought. We weren’t docked yet—not even close, it would turn out—but thanks to my team, thanks to Nancy, Harry, and a whole bunch of congressional Democrats who’d taken tough votes, we finally had land within our sights.

Apparently the end of the first volume, according to the review below, is a taut and gripping account of the hunting of Osama bin Laden, seen from the White House.

In fact, when I saw that the conservative Spectator had a very positive review—though faulting the book for “humblebrag” and “schmalz”—it almost sealed the deal. I think the chances are about 75% that I’ll get the book. But that of course commits me to getting the second volume. Click on the screenshot:

An excerpt from the Spectator review:

But under all that hopey changey stuff, and where the long sections about wrangling policy through Congress really come into their own, is a superbly engaging study in realpolitik. He was famous for his windy rhetoric; but to get anything done in office required a steely political operator. Obama, the centrist dad’s centrist dad, is again and again confronted by the hard arithmetic of the caucus at home, and of tangled interests abroad. He really shows you how the sausage is made — and his cool, conscientious, covering-all-the-angles pragmatism, more than his optimism, is the real fascination in this book. If first-term Obama has an arch-nemesis, it’s not Osama bin Laden or Donald Trump: it’s the Senate filibuster. And there’s a wry sense of the absurd. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he secures the endorsement of the ‘Butter Cow Lady’, ‘who at the state fair each year sculpted a life-sized cow out of salted butter’, and blasts statewide the prerecorded call announcing her support. ‘She later created,’ he says proudly, an Iowan Ozymandias: ‘a 23-pound butter bust of my head.’

He delivers crisp little put-downs, too. As a candidate, when a do-gooding ice-cream company called on him to defund the Pentagon, he recalls wearily: ‘I had to call either Ben or Jerry — I don’t remember which.’ Nicolas Sarkozy is a ‘bantam cock’ (that’s surely at least half right) whose conversation

swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.’

Now the older I get, the greater the percentage of nonfiction in what I read, but my tolerance for long books has also decreased. There were days when I could breeze through Robert Caro’s 4-volume biography of LBJ—one of the greatest nonfiction “books” of our time—for several hours a day, every day until I finished each volume. Now I struggle with such a length. I’m not sure whether this is age or simply the anxiety that comes with the pandemic. So 700+ pages seem daunting, and, truth be told, politics usually bore me. But Caro didn’t bore me, and Obama’s book seems to have the appealing Caro-esque mix of the man and his job.

Has anybody read it yet? There are over ten thousand reviews on Amazon, 94% of them giving the work five stars—for a book that came out on November 17!

61 thoughts on “Obama’s new book looks good

    1. Interesting review. Not so surprising as Obama is much more a politician than historian. Not sure why he thought it necessary to attempt to go over so much of what he really does not know. Maybe if I read his book but you have to wonder, what was the point? Besides, if you are going to write a non-fiction then try to stay away from the fiction.

        1. delivery peace to the middle east. He should just stick to health care. At least he got 10 percent on that. And by the way, anyone who is working on middle east peace should just cancel any talk of history and work from today forward.

    2. It’s no secret that Obama is far less fanatical about supporting Israel than most other postwar presidents. This made the Iran deal possible.

      (I cannot find a critical article about Trump on JNS.)

  1. I watched the interview Oprah did with him on Apple+. The technology with the green screen was so good it really looked like they were in the same room. But it was a good interview & the quotes from the book showed how well written it is so I’ll probably buy it. I’ve read Madeline Albright’s memoir, as well as Bill Clinton’s and Hilary Clinton’s and I think Obama’s will be better.

      1. Albright is a top notch dame, I’ll tell you that. I saw her once on Madison Ave getting out of the Cadillac motorcade— you know how SHORT she is? She’s tiny. A tiny, wonderful little munchkin.
        Love her.
        D.A., NYC

  2. I think the intolerance for long books, which I share, is because we’re getting old and the time we have left is so valuable. When I was young, spending a lot of time on things didn’t seem that big a deal, even though I understood my time on Earth to be finite. It was all just an investment in my future. Not so much any more.

    1. I don’t have the focus I once did. I have to really force myself sometimes to stay focused. I know that comes with age.

        1. It’s funny because I was about to come here to read what you said and in between, saw an article and read that then shared the article with some friends and it then took several minutes to remember what I originally was going to do….but I managed to finally remember so here I am….illustrating our points.

          1. Do you think it is age, or has the sound-bite nature of the internet trained us, destroying our ability to concentrate for long periods?

            1. Could be both. I found it much easier to ignore those things when I was younger. I suspect it’s a combination of both. I could be distracted and multi-task without forgetting what I was originally doing. Now I can forget for days before I it comes back to me. I also get a lot of migraines and I suspect I have some issues neurologically now.

  3. “By preëmptively spinning …”

    I see The New Yorker is still foisting its de trop diaeresis upon the prose of those whom it quotes.

    1. Why de trop, when if the pronunciation difference isn’t emphasized it’ll be elided by someone who doesn’t know any better. Might be elided anyway but at least notice has been given.

      Whenever I see that word, I must stop for a few seconds to remind myself it’s not “diuresis.”

      1. I find it a distraction, as I think most American English readers do, both because most no longer understand the purpose of diaeresis, and because they hardly need it to pronounce words like “preempt” and “cooperate” correctly (which is why one finds it hardly anywhere else in US publishing nowadays).

        My real plaint here, however, is not with the use of diaeresis in the copy of The New Yorker‘s own writers — The New Yorker is The New Yorker, after all, and wouldn’t be “Mr. Ross’s magazine” without it — but when the magazine inserts it into quoted material, thereby cluttering up the prose of authors who didn’t see fit to use it themselves in the original.

        A small point, I acknowledge, perhaps an ill-favored point, but mine own. 🙂

        1. Orking a cow… yes; actually, this is something Saruman was said to have been working on, building on the success of his earlier projects…

      1. Mostly I think of veal because of the veal fattening pens of cubicles they once crushed everyone into in office buildings.

  4. If you buy the book, please do so from a local, independent bookstore, not Amazon. Support small businesses please!

  5. There were days when I could breeze through Robert Caro’s 4-volume biography of LBJ—one of the greatest nonfiction “books” of our time—for several hours a day, every day until I finished each volume. Now I struggle with such a length.

    As I think I may have mentioned in a comment here before, I read the fourth volume of Caro’s magnum opus shortly after the pandemic’s onset. I fairly flew through the first three volumes (and, after volume two, while awaiting volume three, through Caro’s first tome, the one on Robert Moses, The Power Broker).

    The fourth volume, on the other I hand, I found slower going, in part, I think, due to lockdown-induced lassitude. The other reason is that the first three volumes were pure history to me, whereas the events covered in volume four, Passage to Power, coincide with my own earliest political memories — including, of course, that fateful day in Dallas in November 1963 and its aftermath. I found I had to put the book down every few pages as the memories came flooding back, both as to the events themselves, and as to the significant time I’ve spent since brooding upon The Meaning of It All.

    1. I hope the much awaited fifth volume appears soon. Both Caro and I are getting on. I want to learn why LBJ abandoned his marvelous domestic agenda for the Viet Nam hell hole.

  6. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA has conducted 378 strikes in the program’s 10-year history. Of those, 326 are classified as “Obama strikes.” The total number of people killed by drones is estimated at 2,528 to 3,648. Civilian casualties are estimated at 416 to 948, with 168 to 200 of those being children. As many as another 1,545 are estimated to have been injured in those strikes.”

    “Centrism”. Someone who is responsible for killing up to 200 children can never even be in the club of “mildly okay people” the word “centrism” suggests. Add that to up to a thousand hapless individuals who stood around at the wrong corner in their own flippin country, mowed down or maimed while some drone operator in the USA cheered.

    This all became “necessary”, let’s not forget, because of an Iraq invasion based on lies, which claimed some tens of thousand lives, and which created the conditions for the evil Islamic State, more cruelty and violence. Of course, both Hussein and Bin Laden used to be American allies, raised and nourished by the the US to annoy either the Russians or the OPEC neighbours. Their dictatorship or terrorist activities are directly a result of American politics. There is no chapter in this whole story where the US didn’t find a way to make it worse (unless you‘re one of America‘s elites; went great for them).

    A 2013 book quotes Obama saying his drone program was “really good at killing people” (source for this is and the quote above here).

    Now in his new book, Obama himself talks about his “war on terror”. An exerpt gives a passage where he reads his words about murdering people, and the great mass surveillance technology that grew under his auspices, and which makes “Orwellian” seem inadequate. They “comb” the internet, as he says, and also wiretap everyone, which he doesn’t spell out, but brazenly lies that this was to thwart terrorists, or help so-called “American interests” (i.e. corporate interests of the US donor class who next year get $740 BN as military budget).

    More books are forthcoming. Obama is one of the bad guys in history and won‘t look better even if he attempted to rewrite history in a hundred more books.

      1. I get what you say, but I don’t believe that Obama is as naïve, or even opposed to such programs. I think it’s a big myth that Democrats really want to do the right thing, but can’t because of McConnel’s blockade, or because they have been deceived, or had to compromise. My view is that Democrats want the outcome they get and that there is no place for intention in politics.

        Of course, there’s more. What did they say about “enhanced interrogation” that continued under his guise, or keeping people interred in Gitmo without trials? What did they say about Snowden as he exposed practices that no average person wants? How about his bailout program, where …

        “[…] the main winners were the large, unsecured creditors of large financial institutions. While their exact identities have not been made public, most are likely to have been large institutional investors such as banks, pension and mutual funds, insurance companies, and sovereigns. […]” — <a href="https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/heres-how-much-2008-bailouts-really-cost"source&quot;

        1. I respectfully suggest that Obama’s tenure as President had many limits that he was not able to overcome. After all, the leader of the opposition party stated immediately after he took office that they would refuse to work with him and do everything within their power to make him a one-term president. You could almost hear “because you’re black!” He realized that he had to choose his battles. He’s not now going to detail all these battles for obvious reasons but it had to be very difficult to deal with. As was proven by Trump getting elected, perhaps a third of the US population felt that he didn’t belong in the White House and regarded his presidency as an error in need of immediate correction.

          1. Last comment on this topic. It’s true that he could never really do his thing in practice if he wanted to, not even in the first two years (he never had the supermajority, despite oft-repeated assertion to the contrary). But he didn’t really want anyway.

            There is no evidence that Democrats would ever do the nice thing they sometimes promise. They are amazing at making promises that somehow never materialise, which former Obama-Vice Joe Biden is soon to demonstrate again. They will hand out crumbs with much fanfare, but the real beneficiaries are somehow always the donors, and party sponsors. Just recently, a stimulus check went to the top — again. The stimulus for the lower strata was blocked by Democrats because they didn’t want to see Trump hand out checks with his signature on. Meanwhile in Germany and many other European countries, the government pays the incomes of workers and employees at close to 80% while there are recessions or pandemic crises to keep them in their jobs.

            Corporations don’t pay millions for nothing. They know what it gets them, that’s why they generously sponsor politicians, and more recently, Democrats rake in the a lot of dosh. Sanders relied on small donations, which came in record numbers and hence that had to be crushed. In other countries this might sound like crazy talk, conspiracy theory or libellous accusations of crimes — in the US it’s legal, well documented and completely uncontroversial that big money talks.

            The proof is in the pudding. If the Democrats were what they pretend they are, the labour and insurance situation of average Americans wouldn’t be dire (Democrats had many opportunities, somehow never gotten around to things, and it was Clinton who cut welfare, see PRWORA in 1994). There was now a historical situation, and a mandate, to do a little bit that isn’t corporate right wing oriented. Leftists came out, too, to prevent Trump. Now what did the Democrats do?

            Flipped a giant middle finger to the left. In a time of great trials, where about 50 million Americans now face hunger (as was reported in several news, e.g. here). And then there’s the “appointment of a longtime anti-Sanders troll to the Biden government [which] is an impressively petty end zone dance by Democrats celebrating the crushing of their left flank” as Matt Taibbi writes.

            Neera Tanden brings us back to Obama and the real Democrats. She’s a party soldier with no discernible talent, close to the Democrat power with views such as “[w] have a deficit, they have a lot of oil” once suggesting the US could loot Lybia for its oil resources. Obama or Biden (who picked her) aren‘t where they are without such attitudes.

            1. Some of this is that the Democrats are still very right leaning compared to the parties on the Left in other countries. The Democrats in the US I think would be comparable to our party on the Right in Canada. But within the American context they seem very Left. It’s strange for the rest of the world.

              Then there is the corruption that money brings that you mention. Sadly, legislation that got rid of rules limiting how much money goes into politics, etc. really messed up America.

              Lastly, there is the trust issue. From talking to Americans, I’m often left with the strong impression that Americans distrust and fear their government. It’s built into the culture. In other democracies, we see the government as the institution that will help and protect us. That’s not so with Americans and if they hear you talk this way, they think you are a naive puppet of some evil entity.

    1. Well, as Michael Corleone slyly pointed out to Kay in The Godfather, Presidents and Senators (and even Representatives, and state and local elected officials probably all the way down to mayors) have people killed, directly or indirectly. Every decision they make can affect whether some people somewhere live or die – innocent or guilty, young, old, just and unjust – and the more powerful the office, the more often it’s likely to happen. It’s part of the job, unfortunately. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held to task for their decisions, of course, especially if they were ill-thought-out, motivated by other than an attempt to serve their office to the best of their ability, or ignored matters of which they should have taken note. But there are no innocent presidents.

    2. I very much doubt Obama will be seen as “one of the bad guys in history”. Yet I agree his drone program was appalling.
      The ACA saved countless lives, so there’s that. And he also invested $150 million in 2013 to research the mRNA that is now being used in the successful Covid vaccines. So there’s that too. I’m not saying saving lives cancels out the killing of innocents, but his legacy won’t only be examined through the lens you supply.

    3. When considering the efficacy of the drone program, one must ask the famous Les McCann question: Compared to what?

      Compared to carpet bombing? Compared to putting a division of US GIs in harm’s way to carry out a mission to kill or capture a US enemy?

      A US president’s most solemn duty is to keep the people of the United States safe. And the sad fact of the matter is that there are people in the world who wish to do Americans harm.

      I’m a peacenik myself, and abhor the unnecessary use of violence, especially when innocents become collateral damage, and most especially when those innocents are children. But we should never lose sight of what George Orwell said about modern democracy in a hostile world: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

      1. I was about to say the same. His job was to protect Americans and he did that. He mentions how he was very aware that every time he ordered some sort of military action that Americans would die. I think he simply made the best decision he felt he could with the tools and the constraints that he had.

  7. Just want to put in a good word for the audiobook. Obama narrates and it’s just great! Sounds like he’s talking to me, not reading to me. 29+ hours, but it will see me through lots of hours on the treadmill.

    1. Oh yes, I think when I get this book I’ll probably get the audiobook either as part of the purchase of the ebook or as just the audiobook because he’s a very good speaker.

  8. You should consider the audio book, which is available at Audible (and presumably other places). Obama reads it, and he’s great to listen to. Check out the three minute preview on Audible.

      1. Ha ha maybe only if played at weird times when they aren’t expecting it like through headphones as they sleep.

  9. What a pile of self-serving crap about the ACA and its lefty critics! Talking about a public option didn’t confuse the base, it educated (some of) them. Obama’s strategy – I use the word very loosely – of starting with a Republican Romneycare plan and negotiating from there … was less than brilliant. Yes, it will probably evolve into something slightly better, if the Republican sabotage* doesn’t kill it off first. It would be better to start closer to the goal.

    *: You did notice that the Republicans repealed the mandate, right? Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t use this as an excuse to kill the ACA, healthy people opting out could very well kill it. As usual, Democrats are playing checkers on a chess board.

  10. I finally got around to reading the full excerpt of Obama’s new book in The New Yorker. When it comes to setting a scene, or relating a story, he is, you ask me, the the most graceful prose stylist among Anglophone world leaders since Winston Churchill (who was awarded a Nobel Lit prize for his efforts).

  11. Oh it seems so long ago that the ship of state was commanded by an intellectual, a man of moderation, intellectually curious and reliant on facts rather than his own dark psychopathic urges and reflexive vindictiveness. Remember that?

    IF YOU RECALL…..You didn’t open the paper or the news… in horror of what outrage was today’s disaster or embarrassment.

    I miss that. Hopefully we’ll get it back now. Thank goodness!! And that family of orange grifters will sink into the obscurity they so richly deserve.

    D.A. NYC

  12. I have found that I really don’t like to read much anymore. The older I get I think my limited time should be spent on doing and completing my many art projects. This is why I have turned to audiobooks. I can listen and do something else simultaneously. I discovered Libby only a year ago. I’m too cheap to buy books. Would much rather spend it on a good bottle of wine. I have reserved Obama’s book but the wait time is 6 months!! These wait times are sometimes shortened. I hope so.

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