Barack Obama’s Memoir: “Deliberate, Measured, Methodical With a Lot of ‘Still’ and ‘Maybe'”

From a New York Times story by Jennifer Szalai headlined “In ‘A Promised Land,’ Barack Obama Thinks—and Thinks Some More—Over His First Term”:

The most audacious thing about Barack Obama’s new memoir, “A Promised Land,” is the beaming portrait on its cover: There he is, the 44th president, looking so serenely confident that it’s as if the book weren’t arriving on the heels of a bitter election, amid a cratering economy and a raging pandemic.

The ebullient image also stands at odds with the narrative inside — 700 pages that are as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself. Obama says that he initially planned to write a 500-page memoir and be done in a year; what he ended up with instead is a hefty volume (now the first of an anticipated two) that stops in May 2011, shortly after his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 30 and the killing of Osama bin Laden the day after. . . .

Presumably left for the future volume are, among other fraught subjects: the 2016 election, his abdication of his own “red line” in Syria, the entrenchment of the surveillance state and a discussion of drone strikes. This isn’t to say that “A Promised Land” reads like a dodge; if anything, its length testifies to what seems to be a consistently held faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did.

Nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt has written a memoir that covers his years in office; this one contains some inevitable moments of reputation-burnishing and legacy-shaping, though the narrative hews so closely to Obama’s own discursive habits of thought that any victories he depicts feel both hard-won and tenuous. An adverb he likes to use is “still” — placed at the beginning of a sentence, to qualify and counter whatever he said just before. Another favorite is “maybe,” as he reflects on alternatives to what happened, offering frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. . . .

Obama doesn’t force the metaphor, but the events described in “A Promised Land” suggest that something very old and toxic in American politics had been unleashed too. It was as if the Republican Party, having sidled up to the jagged shores of white grievance, was starting to founder on them. As he writes of the Deepwater disaster: “Where the rest of the oil ended up, what gruesome toll it took on wildlife, how much oil would eventually settle back onto the ocean floor, and what long-term effect that might have on the entire Gulf ecosystem — it would be years before we’d have the full picture.”

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