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Barack Obama Doesn’t Have the Answers

The former president seems unable to reckon with the failures of his presidency and diagnose the Republican Party’s incurable nihilism.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What are we supposed to do with Barack Obama? He’s said at least twice over the course of the publicity tour for his new presidential memoir, A Promised Land, that his ideal reader is a young person.⁠ “Some 25-year-old kid,” he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview published this week, “who is starting to be curious about the world and wants to do something that has some meaning. I want them to read this and say, ‘Okay, this is not all rocket science; this is something I could contribute to and make a difference in.’” Of course, many of those who were 25 years old on Election Day this month probably had their curiosities about and hopes for the world whetted the night Obama was elected in 2008. All that’s happened since then has turned them into the cohort of the population most eager to move on from his brand of politics.

What they’re getting instead is a restoration of it. Joe Biden and a number of Obama alumni are returning to the White House; now Obama himself is striding back into the American psyche with a book offering more audacity and more hope. “I titled it A Promised Land,” he recently told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley, “because even though we may not get there in our lifetimes, even if we experience hardships and disappointments along the way … I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” Obama has asked readers to wade through more than 700 pages in the service of that conclusion; the book itself—only the first of two volumes—is a testament to his faith in the perseverance of the American people.

In fairness to him, the book is more than a collection of familiar Obamaisms and biographical miscellany—there are tick-tock accounts of the major events in his first term. Liberals and progressives who clutched their heads in frustration wondering what Obama could be thinking at various points between his inauguration and the bin Laden raid in 2011 now have a set of answers from the man himself. One of the major excerpts published before the book’s release on Tuesday was a section on the negotiations behind the Affordable Care Act that ran in The New Yorker earlier this month. As one should generally expect from political memoirs, it is both a paean to Getting Things Done and a reprimand of the pesky idealists who often stand in the way, pining for impossibilities like the public option. “I found the whole brouhaha exasperating,” he writes. “‘What is it about sixty votes these folks don’t understand?’ I groused to my staff. ‘Should I tell the thirty million people who can’t get covered that they’re going to have to wait another ten years because we can’t get them a public option?’”

Wrong as Obama believes their political calculus to have been, the text is strewn with tacit admissions that the left was correct on the merits of the public option and the demerits of the Democratic Party. “Activists on the left,” he laments at one point, were “outraged that Harry [Reid] and I appeared to be catering to the whims of Joe Lieberman.” This line comes exactly three sentences after Obama confirms that activists had been correct to suppose so⁠—despite their best efforts at persuasion, he writes, even a limited public option had been “too much for the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus to swallow, including Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut.”

Larger villains are discussed with more candor. “We had no way to get to sixty votes in the Senate for a major health-care bill without at least the tacit agreement of the big industry players,” he writes elsewhere. “Drug reimportation was a great political issue, but, at the end of the day, we didn’t have the votes for it, partly because plenty of Democrats had major pharmaceutical companies headquartered or operating in their states.” In another passage, he criticizes unnamed Senate liberals “who liked to rail against the outsized profits of Big Pharma and private insurers,” but “suddenly had no problem at all with the outsized profits of medical-device manufacturers with facilities in their home states and were pushing Harry to scale back a proposed tax on the industry.” He also reiterates notional support for single-payer health care. “Had we been starting from scratch, I would have agreed with them,” he writes. “The evidence from other countries showed that a single, national system—basically, Medicare for All—was a cost-effective way to deliver health care.”

Overall, the story being told at length here is one we’ve already heard in condensed form—despite their best efforts to pass the most progressive policy they could, we’ve often been told, Obama and his team were simply thwarted by money-grubbing legislators and other political constraints. It follows that we should be grateful a health care bill of any kind passed at all. But one can recognize the constraints Obama faced were real without taking it on faith that his team truly and deeply opposed the basic assumptions underpinning our for-profit health care system in principle and without forgetting that Democrats actually could have sidestepped at least one major hurdle in Congress—the Senate filibuster—if they’d wanted to. Since leaving office, Obama has spoken out more pointedly about getting rid of it.

Obama has also spoken out more forcefully about the Republican Party, including the mainstream conservatives and members of the Republican establishment who laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s rise during his administration. “I don’t see [Trump] as the cause for our divisions and the problems with our government,” he said on 60 Minutes. “I think he’s an accelerant, but they preceded him and sadly are gonna likely outlast him.” In his interview with The Atlantic, Obama argued more specifically that “the undertow of resistance to the idea of my presidency”—the reactionary mental breakdown on the right that accompanied his victory⁠—“dates back to Sarah Palin during the campaign.”

“The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base,” he told Goldberg. “I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”

As is now often the case with retellings of the 2008 race, Obama’s account elides the fact that the Palin rallies were McCain rallies. The two ran together, as a unit, in a joint campaign for the White House; McCain’s tepid criticisms of the febrile climate he and his staffers intentionally fed into did nothing to change that. Naturally, Obama went on to favorably compare McCain to the current leadership of the Republican Party later in the interview anyway. “I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave,” he said. “You think about John McCain: For all my differences with him, you would not have seen John McCain excuse a president cozying up to Vladimir Putin, or preferring Russian interpretations of events over those of his own intelligence agencies.” If that’s true, it would have had more to do with McCain’s inveterate hawkery than the strength of his character.

Obama appears now to be a better judge of Mitch McConnell. “I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time,” he told Goldberg. “They’ve known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell. The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough. We would invite them to everything: Movie nights, state dinners, Camp David, you name it. The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.”

What Obama doesn’t acknowledge outright here is that denials of this reality—the insistence, for instance, that Joe Biden’s personal relationship with McConnell means something—are coming from Biden himself. In a speech Monday, Biden dismissed doubts about a return to bipartisanship under his administration. “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control,” he said. “It’s a conscious decision. It’s a choice that we make. If we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. I believe this is part of the mandate from the American people—part of the mandate they gave us. They want us to cooperate. They want us to deliver results. And the choice that Kamala and I will make is that we’re going to do that.”

Biden’s always lacked Obama’s eloquence, but he’s ably performing here something Obama always excelled ⁠at—an attempt to mystify the forces at work in American politics, framed as a demystification. The hard, stubborn reality we all ought to man up and recognize, Biden tells us, is that teamwork makes the dream work. But Obama is publicly expressing doubts about this political mode that Biden has yet to betray—all while denouncing political dishonesty and fakery in the Trump era.

“What we’ve seen,” Obama told Pelley on 60 Minutes, “is what some people call truth decay, something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump, the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter.” The lies and their consequences here might not be equivalent, but how much are we to suppose the truth matters to politicians who insist our deepest problems will be solved if we simply “decide to cooperate”? Haven’t those who’ve worked to obfuscate the interests and incentives involved in shaping political outcomes contributed to our epistemological crisis?

If he ever conceded so, Obama would likely insist nevertheless that the truth doesn’t matter nearly as much as maintaining faith in the American project. “I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America,” Obama writes in another excerpt published in The Atlantic, “not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind.” But he clearly understands, too, as Biden surely does on some level, that our situation is bleak. “I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide,” he writes. “In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish.” It’s a passage far less inspirational than it is chilling—evidence that as determinedly as he might disparage cynicism, Obama knows exactly what horrors await us in the years to come and that the curmudgeons and cranks on the left are, again, substantively correct about the trajectory we’re on.

What will it take to correct course? There’s a perfunctory nod above to social solidarity. But Obama, as ever, is fundamentally an evangelist for personal responsibility. This comes out most glaringly, as it did during his presidency, in his comments about race and Black men in particular. Musing about the gains Trump seems to have made among Black voters this year in his interview with The Atlantic, Obama turned quickly to a dated assessment of the hip-hop scene. “I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money,” he told Goldberg. “A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture.” He goes on to reject material explanations for this. “I’m not an economic determinist,” he says. “I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.”

Maybe we have. But it seems inescapably true that some who pine for stuff, and money, and income do so simply because they do not have enough stuff, and money, and income to get by. Even if it is true, as Obama says to Goldberg, that materialism wasn’t as “in your face” when he and Michelle were growing up, that observation can’t meaningfully be detached from the fact that inequality has been on the rise in this country and that Black wealth has been on the decline—thanks, in part, to his administration’s failure to rescue Black homeowners undone by the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession.

Obama’s spiritual rendering of our cultural decline goes some way toward explaining why, beyond sheer egotism, he’s set on remaining an active narrator and promoter of his own story. The spiritual void that birthed our turn toward materialism and Trump as a popular icon might be partially filled, he supposes, by more positive role models. Reflecting further on Trump’s rise in his interview with Goldberg, Obama refers at one point to “the classic male hero” in the cultural milieu of his youth. “The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter,” he said. “There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies.”

Ironically, one of the first major fictional characters in our age of anti-heroes pursued the same line of thought. “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems,” Tony Soprano famously tells his therapist in The Sopranos’ pilot episode. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do.” Obama and Tony, similarly aged, share more than an interest in Old Hollywood. Both killed people; both convinced themselves their professions indemnified them from judgment on the basis of that fact. “The work was necessary,” Obama writes of his administration’s drone program, “and it was my responsibility to make sure our operations were as effective as possible.” Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, he notes, gave him an additional responsibility—“his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism.” Wayne, Cooper, Stewart, and even Eastwood—political reactionaries all—might have offered the same advice.

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump and the culture that created him, the society that lionized those men was, on the whole, more riven with violence and social pathologies than ours today. Obama has inherited from it a belief that the darkness within the American soul can be conquered with the projection of steely reserve. Mundanely, this belief manifests itself in his habit of suggesting that political contention itself is, more often than not, a symptom of immaturity. “I understand why there were times where my supporters wanted me to be more pugilistic, to, you know, pop folks in the head and duke it out a little bit more,” he said on 60 Minutes. “Every president brings a certain temperament to office. I think part of the reason I got elected was because I sent a message that fundamentally I believe the American people are good and decent, and that politics doesn’t have to be some cage match in—in which everybody is—is going at each other’s throats and that we can agree without being disagreeable.”

Joe Biden is on his way to the White House because the great middle of the country has been made to believe the same⁠: That the primary obstacle to progress in America is nothing more than sheer pettiness on the part of our leaders and that Biden—who isn’t Jimmy Stewart but will have to do—might finally get all Washington to behave in the same way toddlers in a playroom might be encouraged to share their blocks. Politicians hoping to tart up this fantasy a bit often reach for Lincoln: His first inaugural is always a favorite. In his memoir, Obama invokes it in a reflection on his self-doubt. “There have been times during the course of writing my book,” Obama writes, “when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.”

Of course, Lincoln made his appeal to the better angels of our nature in that address only after explaining to the South that he had no interest in a moral crusade against slavery and that the seceding states could be reconciled with the rest of the country if they rejected violence. The America he’d have brought together if the appeal had succeeded would not have been the promised land.

In any case, it didn’t work. War broke out; the blood of hundreds of thousands ended slavery and restored the union. In recent weeks, commentators with particularly active imaginations have suggested we’re on the cusp of another great conflict. This isn’t so, but we are arguably divided along a line not vastly dissimilar from the one Lincoln reached across that day in 1861. We’ve no particularly good reasons to believe true reconciliation is much more possible; if it happens, it certainly won’t come about the way Obama would have us imagine. But that’s not to say that things are hopeless. In the end, our hopes should lie not in the dream of transcending our political battles but in the possibility that we might win them.