A Promised Land Review: Obama Grades Himself

Michael Hanratty, Maroon-News Staff

President Barack Obama recently released his first Presidential memoir, A Promised Land, covering his 2008 campaign and his first two-and-a-half years in office. Over 700 pages, it is an exhaustive account of the most productive and consequential period of his Presidency. With  surprising candor, President Obama offers up his side of a fascinating chapter in our nation’s story.

Early in A Promised Land, President Obama describes how he spent his college days at Columbia University journaling, lost in obsessive thought about the big questions facing America and the world. It is clear that this cerebral, curious and sometimes somber individual remained a large part of President Obama during his time in the White House. A Promised Land often reads like a journal, with pages upon pages dedicated to careful descriptions of the President’s internal monologues. He stretches and strains to put himself in the shoes of every player in any situation, at various times channeling dictators and terrorists. Not just to understand their likely next moves, but to sympathize with them, lamenting the environmental factors that led them to their heinous actions. Moreover, he uses these monologues with himself to subtly offer up his thoughts on the current moment and his own place in history. President Obama clearly still grapples with his own role in Donald Trump’s election and populist backlash around the world. Obama recognizes it as a crucial aspect of his own legacy; it cements his suspicions that he was a good, but not great, President. He is proud (and protective) of his significant policy victories. But he knows that Presidential greatness is something intangible — something that involves putting America on a “fundamentally different path,” as Obama himself said about Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. The ultimate referendum on his ability to do so was the 2016 election. We all know how that one ended.  

For all his efforts to understand those who are not like him, President Obama has one glaring blind spot: conservatives. He is plainly unable to understand the fact that someone might believe limited government and free markets are the path to prosperity in America. So thoroughly convinced of his own righteousness, he cannot fathom someone opposing his policies simply because they disagree with them. Any form of opposition in Congress is evidence that the Republicans have been bought out by the special interests. Anger from Republican voters only exists because they are being duped by Fox News or just plain racist, proud members of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables.” In A Promised Land, President Obama repeatedly wonders why he failed to bring America together as he promised to do during his meteoric rise to the Presidency. The answer leaps off the page, evident to everyone except the author. By automatically assuming bad faith on the Republican side, President Obama made himself impossible to work with. Asked about bringing bipartisanship back to Washington, Joe Biden said in an October town hall that “you can question [the other side’s] judgment, but not their motive.” President Obama, unable to see how someone’s judgment could differ from his own, was left with only motive to question. Ultimately, President Obama’s failure to fundamentally transform America in the way he wanted to stemmed from a twist of irony: the man who prided himself on his self-awareness simply couldn’t figure out why someone might disagree with him.