Barack Obama has told his story. Again. A Promised Land will almost certainly have sold a million copies by the time you read this. More than just a blockbuster, the book is Obama’s attempt to frame the discussion around his presidency.
Except Obama isn’t a terribly reliable narrator. At key moments, A Promised Land diverges from earlier accounts offered by his chief aides, his record in office, or his two previous memoirs. These silent adjustments are the most revealing portions of the book. They suggest what he’d most like to forget about his career—his mistakes in office, the compromises he made during his rise, and where he fears history will judge him most severely.
Consider these four examples.
Obama’s summary of his relationship with the Donald is simple. He was only “vaguely aware” of Trump until the celebrity billionaire turned into the country’s leading birther. After ignoring the lie for as long as he could, Obama released his birth certificate to put an end to the discussion. Overruling his advisers, David Plouffe and Dan Pfeiffer, he called a press conference where he urged journalists to stop paying attention to ludicrous distractions and focus on the serious issues facing the country. Then he made fun of Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a few weeks later for kicks.
It’s a plausible story, but it’s not the one that Plouffe has told about the administration’s approach to Trump. Plouffe’s version, as told in Obama: An Oral History, is worth quoting in full:
There was strategy. Lifting up Trump as the identity of the Republican Party was super helpful to us. The president went out in the briefing room to present his long-form birth certificate, [but] really to continue the dance with Trump. Our view was lifting Trump up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, you know, as kind of the example of the Obama opposition. There was a strategy behind the material and the amount of time we spent on Trump. Let’s really lean into Trump here. That’ll be good for us.
A final verdict will have to wait until the release of the relevant archives from Obama’s White House years. But for now I incline toward Plouffe’s telling for two reasons.
To begin with, Plouffe followed a similar strategy in the 2010 edition of his book, The Audacity to Win. Trump hadn’t yet made himself the apex predator in the conservative food chain, so Plouffe used a different cast of characters, writing, “The real energy in the [Republican Party] is coming from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other rocks stars of the hard-right punditocracy. . . . Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk are leading the Republican Party. They are the grandmothers and grandfathers of the Tea Party movement.”
And you can understand why Obama would not want to take the credit for casting Trump as the GOP’s spokesman. The results of the strategy—well, they weren’t great.
Besides, it’s not the only time where Obama seems to have shaded the truth. Which brings us to . . .
Remember the deficit? It really was a thing, for a while, dominating the domestic policy debate for much of Obama’s first term.
According to Obama, though, he never bought the hype. After the GOP roared back to life in the 2010 midterms, he complains, “the election results seemed to have turned all of Washington into deficit hawks.” But not the Obamanauts. “All of us in the White House thought that enacting the House GOP’s agenda of deep federal spending cuts would result in absolute disaster,” he explains, adding that “the best thing we could do to lower the deficit was to boost economic growth—and with aggregate demand as weak as it was, this meant more federal spending, not less.”
True enough, but also misleading. Although his White House team didn’t support the Republican austerity program, plenty of his advisers were eager to take an ax to the federal budget. The political team welcomed the chance to reestablish his moderate credentials. “We’re going to need a period of ugliness [with the left],” one administration official recalled Plouffe arguing at the time, “so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars.”
Influential economists in Obama’s world agreed. Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote a secret memo for Obama in 2009 warning that the country was headed toward a fiscal crisis. In January 2010, almost a year before the GOP rout in the midterms, Obama proposed freezing discretionary spending for three years. Even when he was running for president in 2008, Obama promised that during his watch the average level of federal spending would be lower than under George W. Bush.
To be fair, Obama moved past his deficit phobia during his second term. But the evidence suggests that this process took time. Which was also the case with his views on . . .
Here again, A Promised Land tells a straightforward story. He didn’t worry much about immigration before moving to Chicago, where living and working alongside predominantly Mexican immigrants as a community organizer “opened my heart to the human dimensions of issues that I’d once thought of in mainly abstract terms.” From then on, his sympathies would always be with immigrant communities.
It’s a standard Democratic story today. It’s not, however, the account that Obama gives in The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006.
There, too, Obama said that working with immigrants in Chicago broadened his mind. But his evolution didn’t end there. After returning from law school, he wrote, Obama discovered new tensions between the Black and Hispanic communities. “Many blacks share the same anxieties as many whites about the wave of illegal immigration flooding our Southern border,” he said, adding, “not all these fears are irrational.” Obama then touted his support for a bill “requiring that any job first be offered to U.S. workers.” After drawing attention to the political power of the anti-immigrant cause , he admitted, “If I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I’m not entirely immune to such nativist sentiments. When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”
As of 2006, Obama’s heart, it seems, was still just partway open.
4. Harold Washington
The most telling instance of Obama’s airbrushing of his record is also one of his most obscure edits. It concerns his assessment of Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, who was serving in office when Obama moved to the city in 1985. Washington’s victory was an enormous inspiration to his supporters, but his first term was consumed by vicious racist attacks—including from fellow Democrats—that brought government to a virtual standstill. He won re-election in 1987, only to be struck down by a heart attack early in his second term, handing the city back to his enemies.
A Promised Land’s assessment of Washington is tempered but forgiving. Obama writes that the shortcomings of Washington’s tenure revealed the power of racial backlash and the pitfalls of building a movement around a single charismatic leader—issues that would, of course, raise themselves again during his presidency. But he doesn’t linger on Washington’s shortcomings. “What a force he was for those five years,” Obama writes. “Chicago changed on his watch,” he insists, citing improved city services, better schools, a fairer distribution of government jobs, and more racial diversity in corporate hiring.
Obama was not always so generous. “I wanted Harold to succeed,” he wrote in Dreams from My Father, published in 1995. “His achievements seemed to mark out what was possible; his gifts, his power, measured my own hopes.”
But he couldn’t lie to himself:
At the margins, Harold could make city services more equitable. . . . But beneath the radiance of Harold’s victory, in Altgeld and elsewhere, nothing seemed to change. I wondered whether, away from the spotlight, Harold thought about those constraints. Whether . . . he felt as trapped as those he served, an inheritor of sad history, part of a closed system with a few moving parts, a system that was losing heat every day, dropping into low-level stasis.
A historic candidacy with pedestrian results, a government drifting into entropy, a legacy of disappointment—man, that sounds familiar.
The young Barack Obama was an insightful guy. Just imagine what he would say about A Promised Land.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.