When Barack Obama first burst onto the political scene, I was enthralled. Since then, my enthusiasm has never dimmed. He’s a gifted writer with a talent for turning a fine phrase and he never wavers from his belief in democracy or the moral challenges of the times. Most importantly, he’s just a decent guy who loves his family above all else.
So, if like me, you’re interested in his journey from early political aspirations to the highest office in the U.S., this book will satisfy. But be forewarned, at 700 pages, many of them filled with the minutiae of deciding policy, gaining approval, and maneuvering behind closed doors, it’s not light reading.
I’d already read his previous two books, so I found the early part detailing his rising interest in politics and his ascendency through Chicago’s community work somewhat repetitive. But for those unfamiliar with this part of his narrative, it provides context for his later decisions and the circumstances that shaped him. To me, it was most captivating after he decided to run for president. The book deals only with his first term from 2008-2012. Doesn’t it all seem like only yesterday, and oh so long ago?
Obama came to power in the middle of a global financial crisis and two failed wars after the catastrophic events of 9/11. America was plunged into a deep economic quagmire and the war in Afghanistan had gone from bad to worse. All in all, a great time to take the reins!
But his message was one of hope, change, and determination. His campaign slogan of “yes we can” now seems one of charmed innocence like something from a by-gone era. Americans were hungry for his youthful charisma, his stubborn optimism, and he won handily against his opponent Senator John McCain.
When Michelle asks him why HE had to be president, he replies that some young boy, black or Hispanic, or who doesn’t fit in, will see him take the oath of office and believe that anything is possible, that their horizons were lifted, their possibilities expanded. “And that alone... would be worth it.” Ever the realist, four years later, he wonders if it were true. “By my own estimation, my impact... so far had been negligible.”
Obama makes clear that he wasn’t in any way destined to become president and swats away the notion like an annoying insect. “I worry that [destiny] encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful.”
While it’s certainly not the theme of the book, as Obama battles partisan opponents and obstinate generals, over affordable health care, foreign policy, and climate change, he reflects on the lurking racist resentment and the rabid media that began to feed on it. He acknowledges the introduction of Sarah Paulin and the invective she unleashes “as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party - xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks - were finding their way to center stage.”
When Democrats lose the House in the mid-terms, Obama is surprised, not just by the defeat, but by the lengths to which GOP leaders were prepared to go to block his legislation. He describes it as “an emotional, almost visceral reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology”.
Of course as we know, four years later, these dark spirits stop lurking on the edges and rise fully formed in the orange embodiment of Trump. The birther conspiracy gains traction and a storm of vileness is unleashed.
On a lighter note, there is a great deal of humour and humility. In Brazil, Obama has to use an aide’s cell phone instead of a secure line to order his first military intervention in Libya. “[the cell phone had] probably also been used to order pizza.”
And always there is his deep love for his wife and children, his mother and grandparents, his close friendships. You can tell a lot about a man who is surrounded by such forces, and acknowledges his indebtedness to them.
If you’re interested in political autobiography and those that shape our world, this one’s for you.
It will be interesting to see his next volume dealing with his second term. I look forward to hearing from his reflections on dealing with the full storm of the GOP and the events that led to his successor.
I also highly recommend Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, for insight into Barack’s amazing wife.
My husband got the vaccine yesterday and springtime is here in my part of the world. Please keep wearing your mask in public, wash your hands, and get the vaccine when it’s your turn. Most importantly, stay hopeful, my friends.
In the meantime, happy reading!