Barack Obama's 'A Promised Land' is mediocre. What does that say about the literary establishment?

Promised Land plays it safe, with his cosmopolitan upbringing and introspective nature set-aside for a more hyper-rational approach—devoid of emotion or intuition.


Why do politicians write memoirs? For many, legacy burnishing is the modus operandi, offering course-correction on their decisions, righting some of the perceived wrongs. For some, it’s an exercise in catharsis, far removed from the hidden tug-of-war between their personal conscious and public reaction. For Barack Obama, it appears to be charting best-seller lists and receiving the hallowed Oprah Winfrey Book Club seal, as a person of interest.

A Promised Land, the 44th US President's memoir released just over a month ago, sold 890,000 copies in its first 24 hours in the US and Canada—a record by its publisher Penguin Random House—and 1.7 million copies in the first week. It has already been named one of the best books of the year by NPR and The Guardian, amongst others, in addition to the near-14,000 Amazon reviews giving it an average of 4.9/5. This unanimous success is even though Obama planned on releasing a 500-page book by 2017, and yet three years later and 200 pages later, it is just one-half of a duology.

And yet, for all Obama’s literary gifts—the book manages to say everything and nothing at all. He offers pithy vignettes of politicians, procedural details that even government bureaucrats wouldn’t envy, and early reflections on wading through his career, some motivations that are "open to interpretation," as he confesses. However, at 768 pages, it is at the Venn diagram intersection of a daily journal, an expanded Wikipedia entry and an acknowledgement-filled Oscar speech, lacking the soul-searching of his first memoir Dreams from My Father, the backroom strategizing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW or on-the-couch insights on complex leaders like Vladimir Putin or Mitch McConnell.

This may be unsurprising, as political memoirs bring low expectations. They are more adept at being doorstoppers than at revealing any vulnerabilities. Book Riot’s Trisha Brown comedic take on the templatized format of memories are as follows:

  1. Build your title from meaningless buzzwords
  2. Make sure to hit the non-partisan American trifecta of God, sports, and family.
  3. Make it clear that your political career is completely unexpected.
  4. Show that you play well with others.
  5. Honor your elders.
  6. Admit your mistakes, but not in a way that anyone will hold them against you.

The Publishing Industry

"These forgettable books are a yellow brick road where heartless prose, brainless policy prescription and cowardly confession meet." This is Casey Cep’s take in Why Are Politicians’ Books So Terrible?" in Politico Magazine, describing these memoirs as an "exemplar of the smarm produced by the union between politics and publishing."

Yet, the publishing industry has generously rewarded political memoirs. Bill Clinton at $15 million for My Life (2004), George W. Bush at $7 million for Decision Points, and Barack and Michelle Obama for a $65 million joint deal (2017)—because it is "safe bets for publishers—even if the public doesn’t buy," writes Cep. Campaign funds can be used to purchase copies of the book, and distribute to donors, just as former US politicians Sarah Palin’s campaign spent $63,000 on her own book, and Herman Cain spent $100,000 on his. "Candidates kick-start their campaigns with these books hoping to offer voters honey that will outlast whatever vinegar gets subsequently turned up by the press."

The publishing industry’s Faustian bargain with politicians is understandable, considering the economic climate. Literary festivals, author tours, and bookstores have closed (with one online media outlet featuring "Publishing and The Pandemic" series on the state of affairs). But many of these same insiders have shown extraordinary levels of dysfunction. France’s nepotistic literary awards making national news, and the Black Lives Matter protests are leading to revelations of unfair wages for diverse authors, with and sudden calls for "inclusion" in book recommendations. For all its self-reverence, the publishing industry is a product-based business, not a meritocracy championing talent.

Beyond the economics of what makes a "publisher’s darling," there are always the enduring concerns that during award season, identity politics have triumphed over merit. Even in my wine-and-cheese book club—filled with writers, academics, and artists—the cultured crowd eschews award-winners because of the literary world’s current obsession with race, class, and gender. Recent winners such as Girl, Woman, Other and The Sellout, amongst them.

How to Think

One writer who has been pre-occupied by identity and its paradoxical nature, is Barack Obama. Born to a self-destructive, Harvard-educated, Kenyan father, and a doting, “eccentric” anthropologist Kansas mother, he was raised in the far-flung corners of the world (Hawaii and Indonesia). He had interests that ranged from basketball to books, and has always been a man nurtured, and occasionally torn, in different worlds.

He is considered America’s first black president yet is of mixed-race. He is known for his self-assurance, yet demonstrates uneasiness in his own skin. His lofty campaign rhetoric heightened expectations of being transformational president for the left, yet instead validating he is "conservative in temperament if not in vision," he writes with an incremental style—hitting singles, not swinging for home runs—with one right-leaning magazine remarking "Obama Is A Republican."

But Promised Land plays it safe, with his cosmopolitan upbringing and introspective nature set-aside for a more hyper-rational approach—devoid of emotion or intuition. Mentions of "frameworks," in his Medium post on optimizing decision-making when dealing with complex problems, is one example:

In just a few short weeks on the job, I had already realized that because every tough decision came down to a probability, then certainty was an impossibility — which could leave me encumbered by the sense that I could never get it quite right. So rather than let myself get paralyzed in the quest for a perfect solution, or succumb to the temptation to just go with my gut every time, I created a sound decision-making process — one where I really listened to the experts, followed the facts, considered my goals and weighed all of that against my principles. Then, no matter how things turned out, I would at least know I had done my level best with the information in front of me.

Of course, that only works if you listen — really listen — to others. For me, that meant asking everybody in a meeting what they thought about the problem at hand. I’d call on folks in the back row, including the most junior staffer. That required people to come prepared to share their views.

This McKinsey-like approach served him well during his handling of the 2009 economic crisis, and the details on how he and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s agreed upon ‘stress tests’ to re-start the economy make for a financial thriller. Obama’s Ivy League education—Columbia and Harvard—seems to have rubbed off on him, with former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writing that: “elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.”

But not all problem statements have set variables, and bereft of a fully formed ideology, Obama dithered, revealing a graduate student’s detachment and purposelessness. He is "a man who seems always to be observing himself in action, always wondering if he is guiding the currents or driven by them," The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada notes, as he is "always on the lookout for contradictions and symbolism, unveiling himself only in select moments. If there is a narrative here, it concerns what happens inside the writer’s own head."

This inertia leads to excessive caution, with award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie characterizing a friend’s behavior as "doing an Obama. Take a damn stand" rather than seeing "73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all." Vox’s Constance Grady adds, that "every time another knotty question comes up, Obama lays out the many sides of the controversy and recounts every beat of his exhaustive thought processes. Again and again, he concludes that he always made the best of a set of bad choices."

Obama’s obsession of compromise, conflict aversion, lack of cognitive flexibility when dealing with different psychologies of leaders—and the shifting sands that come with it—led to the Republicans re-capturing the House just two years after his presidency began. Only in his second term, did Obama bypass Congress and issue executive orders to establish meaningful reforms. For all his publicly perceived coolness, he is not a retail politician, uncomfortable at shaking hands and kissing babies, with his aloofness veiling contempt. "Even if you never met him, you know this guy," Republican strategist Karl Rove said. "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone."

The Republicans

Far too often in A Promised Land, Obama lays blame at the Mitch McConnell-led obstructionist Republicans, whose singular goal is making him a "one-term president." He senses a racial undertone, "as if my very presence in the White House had triggered, as deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted," he reflects. But Obama failed to exploit the dysfunctional Republicans, whose civil war put the establishment moderates against the insurgent Tea Party (he notes that Senator Lindsey Graham is a spy thriller character who "double-crosses everyone to save his own skin"). His failure to close down Guantanamo Bay, debatable reforms on education, and incomplete foreign policy, are glossed over in A Promised Land.

Throughout A Promised Land, Obama comes across as weak. When General Stanley McChrystal—"all muscle, sinew and bone, with a long angular face and piercing avian gaze"—openly disparaged his administration, he dithered initially, only later reluctantly terminating McChrystal. "Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented," writes the influential David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy. "It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office."

Despite these shortcomings, perhaps part of Barack Obama’s enduring appeal is his enigmatic perception—a reluctant politician who unexpectedly became President. "You don’t choose the time," late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy told the freshman Senator in 2006. “The time chooses you.”

And yet, we are left with questions if it was the right moment, begging what ifs, if Hilary Clinton won in 2008 and Obama won in 2020? This disconnect is heightened with Obama’s higher personal favorability ratings (64 percent) than his job approval as President (45 percent), according to Pew Research as of January 2017. “What’s clear from this book is how unqualified he was to be President,” my apolitical brother told me, and Obama's political adviser David Axelrod stating "you have to be a little pathological to do what it takes to win. And I just don’t know if you’ve got that hunger in may be a little too normal, too well-adjusted, to run for president.”

Shared Journey

If this essay is considered callous, it is because, like many, I had high hopes for "a skinny kid with a funny name" who looked a little more like me, whose imagination had no boundaries, and whom shared a common path. We both have written memoirs about our father, never cleanly fit into our prescribed ethnic cultures, struggled with anguish about our place in the world, love books, ideas and debate, were deeply influenced by our first job in community organizing, and attended Harvard University.

During his election, I was in my final year of university, and had a political awakening, and a decade later, continues to shape me. Shortly after in 2010, I would travel to work and listen to his famous 2004 DNC speech on repeat, which propelled him to stardom. Earlier this year, I spent four months in Kenya, thinking about his journey and dreams, culminating in Dreams From My Father at 33 years old—the same age as myself. Just as 72-year old Al Gore continues to tackle climate change (strengthened by his book An Inconvenient Truth, and the 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary), and 74-year old Bill Clinton has attained over $2 billion US for the Clinton Foundation, a global philanthropy non-profit, what will Obama's second act be?

And yet, if he had to do it over, "I can’t say I would make different choices," he concludes. "Maybe A Promised Land is as good as we could ever expect," HuffPost’s Claire Fallon writes. "Maybe his presidency was too. But maybe that doesn’t mean good enough."

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